No End in Sight in Syria as Turkey Moves In

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

March 1, 2018

Eight years have passed since Syria began to disintegrate. Civilians continue to be targeted at an ever-increasing rate. Also ever rising, it seems, is the number of domestic and foreign militias and regular military forces involved. It is perhaps not a surprise then that Turkey’s opening of a new front in Kurdish-controlled Afrin has been met by dismay and alarm. There are few signs that the Turkish incursion into Afrin has brought the swift victory promised by the Turkish government. But it has endangered Turkey’s relationship with the United States, as well as its relationship with Russia and Assad’s Syria. Though there are signs of a possible compromise between the major actors, there is a severe shortage of trust after so much bloodshed.

On this difficult anniversary of the Syrian conflict, The National editorial staff is especially concerned that “the fires devouring the country will continue to rage and claim lives even after Mr. Al Assad is gone. This will in large part be due to his legacy of mistrust, violence and unholy collusion – but a substantial portion of the blame must also be shouldered by all those who sought to use Syria to advance their own geopolitical interests or settle old scores. The moral compass of the multiple parties competing for supremacy in Syria is so battered that it is impossible any longer to place even a modicum of trust in the analgesic assurances they dispense…. All of these powers originally entered Syria with lofty claims about wanting to protect the Syrian people. But far from helping to alleviate the suffering of Syrians, they have subordinated the safety and security of Syrians to their own narrow goals. The civil war in Syria is poised to enter its eighth year with no end in sight.”

Reflecting on the state of disarray in Syria, Ghassan Charbel is keen in a recent op-ed for Al Ahram to point out Syria’s past as an important and powerful actor in regional politics: “Those who knew Syria before its army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 realize the calamity that it is experiencing. Prior to that, Syria was a major player in its immediate surroundings and throughout the Middle East…. Former French Ambassador to Syria Michel Duclos recently wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat that the Dayton Agreement that ended the Yugoslavia war should inspire solutions in Syria and bring all players to a single negotiations table. The regional and international circumstances do not appear ripe for such talks to happen. The Syrian tragedy is open to the most dangerous possibilities. For the first time, the Syrian is the weakest player in the current game that is unfolding on its land and the decisions that are being taken without him.”

For Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy, the growing divide between U.S. and Turkish objectives in the region makes it unlikely the two erstwhile allies will be able to smooth out their disagreements any time soon: “Another major area of disagreement is how to secure northern Syria, especially in towns, cities and areas liberated from the Islamic State (IS) group, and who would provide security in these liberated areas. One of the major objectives of American strategy in Syria is to prevent the re-emergence of IS in these areas. However, Ankara absolutely rejects the presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), trained, assisted and equipped by the United States, along the Syrian-Turkish borders…. With the growing authoritarian streak of the Turkish president and his new Ottoman leanings and dreams of regional hegemony, it is not at all clear that we are about to witness the bolstering of the American-Turkish alliance. On the contrary, the odds are that American-Turkish relations would remain strained, at least until Syria stabilizes.”

Haridy is not the only one who sees U.S.-Turkish relations as approaching a nadir. Sedat Ergin, writing for the Turkish daily Hurriyet Daily News, notes that, despite attempts by Washington to allay Turkish fears, U.S. support for the YPG will likely lead to more conflict in the future: “Last week’s most important developments in Turkey have included getting into a surprise normalization process with two major Western countries with whom Ankara’s relations were stuck in a rut of deep uncertainty…. These developments show that policymakers in Ankara, especially President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, do not wish to risk cutting ties with the West or burning bridges despite the negative environment. It is obvious that policymakers in the West share the same attitude…. It is also clear that despite lending his hands to the U.S., Erdoğan’s anger, provoked by U.S. support for the YPG, which Ankara sees as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), will not ease anytime soon.”

A short perusal of Turkish media reveals that few are convinced by U.S. overtures, although Daily Sabah’s Melih Altinok believes “Washington that will have the greatest difficulty explaining to its people the cost that will arise in a possible bad scenario of Turkish and U.S. troops facing off in Syria…. Turkish people think that operations against terrorist organizations in northern Syria along the border are not a choice but an obligation…. If the U.S. wants to find a solution that best fits its national interests in this narrow area that have so many players involved, it must urgently revise its Syria policy. Leaving complexities aside, the U.S. should acknowledge that it is a more rational solution to meet its expectations in Syria with reliable, strong and legitimate allies like Turkey, instead of with terrorists like the YPG.”

Saadet Oruc reserves equally strong words for U.S. policymakers and media who, according to him, are mischaracterizing the objectives and actions of the Turkish government: “With Operation Olive Branch, Turkey aims to provide political gains to Syria, while securing safety for its people. By defeating terrorist groups like the YPG, PYD and Daesh, it wants to pave the way for the start of a solution process for the country…. However, there is not a single day that we do not see a news article trying to show Turkey as a cruel actor against Kurds. The sole goal of these media groups is to overshadow Ankara’s legitimate steps. What is more, it is not correct as they claim that the PYD and YPG are representative of Kurds, but Kurds are one of the most badly affected communities in YPG-held areas. One should put media manipulations aside to see the reality and facts on the ground. When they do it, they will see Turkey’s aim is to target terrorists, not Kurds or any other Syrian nationals.”

But Afrin is proving to be a more difficult military operation than what the Turkish military leaders may have anticipated. At least that’s what Gulf News’s Sami Moubayed concludes based on the evidence so far: “Turkish forces have been unable to march on the city, let alone penetrate Kurdish defenses. It was supposed to be swift, yet nearly one month down the road, 28 fighters have been killed on the Turkish side, and Afrin remains firmly in the hands of the Kurds…. Additionally, the Afrin battle has tarnished Erdogan’s already troubled reputation — his forces have been accused of using napalm, a flammable liquid prohibited in combat (denied by Turkey. The US says it is unlikely Turkey used chemical weapons) …. Clearly, the Americans are unwilling to break with the Kurds of Syria, but they are open to restricting their expansion to territories east of the Euphrates River only, letting the Russians handle everything west of it.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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