MESOP TODAYS JARABULUS REPORT : 1) Turkey Changes the Dynamics of the Conflict – 2) The Maneuvers of Foreign Powers – 3) Turkeys “No fly Zone?”
Rebels v. Kurds?
The defeat is another major setback for the Islamic State. Pro-Assad forces took the city of Palmyra in central Syria from ISIS in March, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have advanced west from northeast Syria. Earlier this month, the SDF captured ISIS’s main position in Aleppo Province, the city of Manbij.
The retreats leave the Islamic State reliant on the city of Raqqa and surrounding area for their claim of a “caliphate” which includes Syria as well as Iraq. But Wednesday’s development raises even wider questions about the future of the Syrian conflict, notably the relationship between the rebels — now with overt Turkish involvement in their position — and Kurdish forces who are opposed by Ankara.
The Turkish Government quickly seized the opportunity to press the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia, the most prominent Kurdish force in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, “[We act] against terror organizations such as Daesh [the Islamic State] and the PYD.”
Perhaps surprisingly — given the extensive US support for the SDF since its creation last autumn — Vice President Joe Biden issued his own warning to the PYD and YPG. Speaking during a two-day visit to Ankara, he said Syrian Kurdish forces “must move back [east] across the Euphrates River”, giving up much of the territory they have taken since last December.
Biden warned, “They cannot — will not — under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment.”
The declaration appeared to catch the PYD by surprise. Salih Muslim, the co-leader of the organization, had tweeted earlier on Wednesday, “Turkey is in Syrian Quagmire. [It] will be defeated just as Daesh. Turkey has much to lose in the Syrian swamp.”
On Thursday morning, a Kurdish official insisted to the BBC that Biden’s statement had been exaggerated by Turkish media and said that messages were awaited from the US military in the region.
The Maneuvers of Foreign Powers
It was not only the shifting US position that drew attention to outside powers on Wednesday.
The speed of the Turkish intervention and rebel advance fed speculation about the stance of key backers of the Assad regime, notably Russia and Iran, and whether they had cut a deal with Ankara — the long-time supporter of the Syrian opposition and rebels.
The regime, speaking through the Foreign Ministry, was in no doubt about its opposition to Turkish “aggression”: “Any move to combat terrorism on Syrian territories should have been coordinated with the Syrian government and army.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry, stopping short of outright objection, said it was “deeply concerned” with “cause for alarm in the possibility of further degradation of the situation in the conflict zone”.
However, the lack of a Russian military response to the sudden turn of events — or any appearance of resistance by the Syrian military — led some to argue that President Vladimir Putin may have bargained with Erdoğan, who visited Moscow earlier this month amid a “reconciliation” after Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane last November.
Officials in Iran, even more fervent than Russia in its backing of President Assad, said little on Wednesday about the Turkish intervention. Instead, State outlet Press TV features an interview with a US conspiracy theorist, Gordon Duff of Veterans Today, as an “analyst” proclaiming “Turkey Has No Intention to Fight Daesh in Syria”.
As part of the attempt to court Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in Ankara last week.
Turkey’s “No-Fly Zone”?
The rebel victory in Jarablus and signals from Ankara revived the possibility of a “safe haven” in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
Turkey has promoted the idea since autumn 2014, suggesting a 98-km (61-mile) strip along the border, extending 40 km (25 miles) into Syria. The haven would run from the northwestern corner of Syria to the anchor of Jarablus, stopping short of the Euphrates River and Kurdish cantons.
Pursuing its own intervention against the Islamic State and wary of Syrian rebels, the US balked at the idea. Prospects were further complicated by the ISIS presence in much of northern Syria, by Kurdish operations not only in northeast but also northwest Syria, and by the Russian aerial intervention from September 2015.
Yesterday’s capture of Jarablus suddenly removes the ISIS obstacle, and it puts pressure on Kurdish groups to — reluctantly — accept the possibility of further opposition areas on the border.
After the surprise in Biden’s statement, it remains to be seen if the US will now be accommodating. And — for all the speculation of a grand deal between Turkey, Russia, and Iran — the reaction of Moscow and Tehran cannot be anticipated.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime — whpse dreams of seizing territory from ISIS in the north, including Raqqa, were quashed in military failure this spring — is a bystander. www.mesop.de