Turkey takes advantage of its privileged position with Moscow, Washington and Tehran- at Syria’s expense

Written by – Elijah J. Magnier:

Notwithstanding the launch of the Turkish military operation – under the name “claw – sword” – (in Turkish Pençe – Kılıç Operasyonu) a week ago against the Kurdish US allies of the “Syrian Democratic Forces“, the US, Russia and Iran all oppose it strongly. Therefore, the Turkish military invasion of north-east Syria is unlikely to actually occur regardless of Ankara’s serious threat and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fervent wish to establish a buffer zone thirty kilometres deep into Syrian-occupied territories. 

Following the terrorist attack that hit the Taksim Square area in Istanbul on November 13, which killed six people and wounded 58, Turkey accused the Syrian Kurds in the “Syrian Democratic Party” of being responsible. The Syrian (People’s Protection Units)YPG Kurds are loyal to the US – not to the government in Damascus –  and protect their occupation forces in northeast Syria. Ankara then began its broadest military operation, the largest since 2018, hitting nearly 500 targets and killing about 480 Kurdish armed members, as claimed by Turkey. Since 2016, Turkey has launched four military operations in northern Syria under the pretext of punishing the Kurdish separatists, and it has deployed its Turkish forces on dozens of static positions inside Syrian territories. Turkey is in control of the Syrian town of Jarabulus on the Euphrates river, the Afrin Canton in north-west Syria and the cities of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain

Ankara considers the YPG forces to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classified on the US and European terrorist lists. The YPG never denied being the PKK Syrian branch and recognised its connections with Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish groups. Regardless of being officially considered a terrorist group, the Syrian Kurdish forces have been protecting the US occupation troops that control dozens of Syrian oil and gas sources for years, which is one of the main reasons for their continued presence in Syria.

The Syrian energy resources are split between the US – that loot the oil across the border to Iraq– and the Kurdish Autonomous Administration, which controls an area of ​​slightly less than a quarter of the Syrian territory. The northeast Syrian provinces contain the biggest Syrian energy sources and the most significant food basket for the country. The US prevents natural resources from reaching the Syrian population and the Syrian army from expanding its control of the entire territory to cripple the economy and submit President Bashar al-Assad to the US will, away from that of Iran. In addition, in clear violation of international laws, the US imposes harsh sanctions on the Syrian population and Israel bombes the country, preventing its stability and prosperity.

However, the presence of the US forces did not prevent the deployment of the Syrian army in selectively allocated areas in the northern provinces, especially when Turkey announced its intentions to expand its control over additional Syrian territories. Moscow and Tehran actively persuaded the Turkish president to back down on 

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his plans to invade the north-eastern Syrian provinces. Regardless of the Turkish menace, the Kurdish forces are still preventing the central government from re-establishing its control over the regions in which US forces are present, even if these are not offering security to the Kurds. 

In 2018, to submit to the US demands, Kurdish forces loyal to Washington preferred to hand over the north-western province of Afrin to the Turkish troops that invaded it and prevented Damascus from controlling this province. The previously Kurdish Canton of Afrin was generating billions of dollars for the Kurdish self-administration. The Kurdish leadership preferred to give up their entire territory to Turkey rather than give Damascus control. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled from Afrin to the eastern regions of Manbij, Ayn al-Arab, Hasakah and Qamishli in northeast Syria.

Russia and Iran oppose the Turkish forces’ push into Syrian regions, convinced that Ankara does not and will not withdraw from the Syrian lands under its control any time in the future. Syria witnessed the “normalisation” that Turkey is carrying out in the north-western areas currently under its control. Ankara established Turkish universities, modified school programs and imposed Turkish lira in the Syrian markets and license plates on cars. Ankara nominated a Turkish governor over all the Syrian regions under its control and has established dozens of static military bases.

In the past few days, Russia has held several meetings with the YPG leaders at Qamishli airport, Ain al-Arab, and other areas but failed to persuade the Kurds to hand over the administration to the Syrian troops. Damascus cannot act only as border forces to the Kurds and leave the local administration an entity independent from the rest of the country. Moreover, the Kurdish troops have clashed with the Syrian army several times, resulting in dozens of dead and wounded, to affirm the Kurdish control over the northern provinces.

The Kurdish separatists insist on establishing their Syrian state, “Rojava”, as an extension of the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan, which tried but failed to secede from Baghdad. The Turkish occupation of Afrin Canton spoiled the Kurdish plan to link the northeast to the northwest and have access to the Mediterranean. Moreover, Turkey would have never allowed a Kurdish state on its borders to prevent the millions of Kurds on its territory from demanding their independence.

Notwithstanding the Kurdish behaviour towards Damascus, the Syrian army sent reinforcing troops to Ayn al-Arab and Qamishli, hoping that America would one day complete its withdrawal from the country. President Donald Trump had already announced that Syria was a country of “sand and death” and wanted to obliterate it before the Pentagon imposed a reconsideration of his decision for the benefit of Israel’s national security, not that of the US.

The YPG knows that Damascus’s restoration of control over the northern provinces will end its dream of secession and self-determination. Moreover, the Kurdish separatists fear the central government’s retaliation after the US withdrawal since President Bashar al-Assad qualified their leaders as “traitors” for their protection of the US occupation forces.

The Kurds are not in a perfect position: for two weeks, the Turkish forces have been bombing the Kurdish areas. Fighters, jets, drones, and Turkish artillery have relentlessly pounded dozens of Kurdish objectives. It is apparent that Turkey says that it is preparing to advance towards Manbij and Ayn al-Arab, but that would mean breaking the Syrian army’s defensive positions, and this is what Russia and Iran will not accept.

Undoubtedly, Turkey is profiting from its privileged position. The US-Turkish relationship and the Turkish-Russia-Iran ties are essential, giving President Erdogan the upper hand over all other players in northern Syria up to a certain point. The US does not want to anger Turkey, the largest North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally. Turkey is a crucial decision-maker in agreeing to the NATO accession of two new members (Finland and Sweden) that Washington is desperately in need of to counter Russia and keep NATO’s unity.

President Erdogan also enjoys a crucial geopolitical position at the gates of the European continent concerning blocking immigrants heading towards Europe. Ankara also plays a relatively diplomatic role as a firefighter in the Ukrainian war. Russia does not want to anger Erdogan, which is preparing his country to become the leading centre for Russian gas gathering and is already a hub for the TurkStream gas pipelines through which Russian gas flows to Turkey. In addition, Moscow considers its relationship with Turkey a positive breach of NATO solidarity and treats it as an essential partner in the Middle East. The further partition of Syria is not in Russia’s interest, which established Moscow’s only window to warm waters, a naval base in Tartous.

As for Iran, Tehran considers Turkey an essential economic hub where hundreds of Iranian companies use Turkish cities to circumvent the harsh US sanctions. Iran is also selling its oil and other natural resources making significant trade that has increased this year from 20 to 49 per cent to reach$7.5 billion, expected to expand to$30 billion as announced by President Erdogan. Moreover, Iran considers Syria an essential part of the “axis of resistance”. Weakening it would threaten the entire alliance.

Therefore, everyone, including the US, which wants to maintain the flow of Syrian resources to its troops in Iraq and protect the separatist Kurdish forces, wants to prevent Turkey from nibbling new land at the expense of others’ interests. The US would look like an unreliable partner incapable of defending its allies that have been offering protection for years if Washington allows Erdogan to push his troops into northeast Syria.

President Erdogan says, “Nobody can stop our action in Syria”. His words were directed in the first place at the US, who protected the YPG, accused of the Taksim Square terrorist attack. Turkey remains the first and biggest beneficiary of any military step it takes in Syria and is clearly aware of its privileged position. Nevertheless, Moscow and Tehran are determined to prevent the loss of more Syrian territory to Ankara. President Erdogan will have to be content with the outcome of the military operation and stay away from spoiling his multi-faceted relationship with the US, Russia and Iran. He will have to be satisfied to enjoy the fact that all these players remain merely indebted to him and accept that, for the first time, they all have the same goal to prevent Ankara from annexing more Syria territories.

Proofread by: Maurice Brasher


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