Erdogan announces forthcoming military operations in north-eastern Syria
Turkey has conducted three major military operations in Syria since the beginning of the long running conflict in the Arab Republic. The first took place in 2016 during which time Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Sheild established a Turkish zone of influence in north western Syria that remains part of the de-escalation area in parts of both Idlib and Aleppo Governorates. The second major Turkish operation began early in 2018 when Operation Olive Branch liberated the northern Syrian city of Afrin from occupation by the YPG/PKK terror group. Since the liberation of Afrin, Turkey and the United States have made a commitment to jointly patrol the north-central Syrian city of Manbij while working to neutralise the YPG/PKK occupation through joint efforts.
Yet with the US openly dragging its feet in Manbij, Turkey has made the decision to prepare for a wider anti-terror operation in Syrian territory east of the Euphrates. Turkey’s President Erdogan announced the forthcoming operation in the following way:
“We are ready to smash the terrorist structure east of the Euphrates. We have completed preparations for this issue. In the near future, we will drive the terrorist organization into a corner through a large-scale and efficient operation. One night we will suddenly come”.
Turkish President Erdogan sends a strong signal for a possible military operation east of the Euphrates, saying "in the middle of the night when you least expect it we may come". This is the same line he used to signal the Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Idlib operations.
— Yusuf Erim (@YusufErim79) October 30, 2018
A US green light or a a breakdown in the Manbij agreement
Turkey has always sought to cooperate with the United States in neutralising terrorism in north-eastern Syria. Yet one of the grave issues that has been a major sticking point in the recent tensions between Turkey and its NATO partner America has been the latter’s continued battle field alliance in north-eastern Syria with the so-called SDF, a militant organisation comprised primarily of YPG/PKK terrorists. While the US continues to list the PKK as a terror group, its YPG branch in Syria is an explicit ally of the United States. As the YPG/PKK have launched attacks on Turkey from Syrian soil, the issue is clearly a matter of grave concern for Ankara.
The lethargy of US activity in Manbij in spite of prior commitments made along with Turkey in May of this year could well have been a motivating factor behind Erdogan’s assessment of the present situation east of the River Euphrates. Alternatively, as communications between top US officials and the Turkish government have increased in the aftermath of the shocking Saudi orchestrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it could well be that Turkish and US officials discussed the matter of an Operation Olive Branch 2.0 east of the Euphrates. Within this context, the US may well have privately green-lighted the operation in one way or another.
The truth of the matter is likely in-between. As the so-called SDF proves ever more ineffective at containing what remains of Daesh in eastern Syria, US military officials will be well aware that the US gamble in allying with the YPG/PKK has largely been a losing one from a short term tactical perspective. As such, the US may well have had little choice but to effectively concede that Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate and that because the so-called SDF can barely do what the US intended it to do, a Turkish presence east of the Euphrates is strategically a safer option from the US perspective than a resurgent Daesh, a crumbling SDF or the presence of pro-Assad troops.
Russia and Iran’s perspective
During the most recent meeting of the Astana trio of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Tehran, it was agreed that all nations shall adopt a mutual definition of terrorism as well as a supportive position of a mutual fight against these manifold forms of terrorism. This along with other statements from Russia in particular has been interpreted as a Russo-Iranian endorsement of Turkey’s actions against YPG/PKK terrorists in Syria.
Therefore, while Russian and Iranian troops will certainly not be present in the forthcoming anti-terror operation led by Turkey, in terms of intelligence and logistical support Russia and Iran appear to be happy to cooperate with their Turkish partner in this new theatre of operations.
Perspective from Damascus
While Damascus disapproves of all Turkish operations on Syrian soil, as the YPG/PKK is a clear threat to the territorial unity and safety of both Turkey and Syria while Damascus’s partners Russia and Iran are working ever more closely with Ankara over regional security matters, it would behove Damascus to speak with Turkey through a Russian or Iranian intermediary regarding Turkey’s operations east of the Euphrates.
As Damascus has already signed up to a constitutional dialogue process which will pave the way for internationally monitored elections in-line with the letter of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation process would help to smooth out such a transition, not least because groups deemed by Russia, Turkey and Iran to be moderate opposition forces tend to have long standing healthy relations with Ankara.
While Damascus and Ankara still have little in common regarding the conflict, a privately united front against the YPG/PKK terror group could potentially go a long way in easing tensions that will naturally arise during forthcoming dialogue processes aimed at redrafting the Syrian constitution. While such discussions between Damascus and Ankara via a surrogate are still unlikely, the longer such dialogue is delayed the more incomplete the peace process will remain.
While the US continues to view north-eastern Syria as its exclusive zone of influence, by allying with an anti-Turkish terror group, Washington could have easily foreseen that Turkey would not stand idly by while such a group becomes a major occupying power in a neighbouring state. Therefore, anyone opposed to Turkey’s forthcoming anti-terror operation can point the finger at the United States as it was US policy makers who felt that it was a prudent decision to openly ally with a dangerous terror group whose Turkish branched remains proscribed by the US.