14.03.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Turkey Risks Isolation as it Approaches Manjib

5645234324Despite the success of the combined forces of Russia, Syria and Iran in Syria against Daesh and other terror networks, the war in Syria is intensifying. This intensification, however, is not due to the continued existence and strength of the proxy militias but a result of the way external actors, especially the US and Turkey, are trying to shape the Syrian territory into “zones”. While both of these countries are pursuing a “safe zone” strategy, they differ in their ulterior objectives greatly—something that is now turning into a confrontation. While the US is aiming at turning Syria into “zones” to prevent Assad from bringing the whole country under his exclusive control and restore his legitimacy, Turkey’s primary motivation is prevention of the creation of a strong Kurdish zone (read: Kurdistan) on its border with Syria. To prevent this, Turkey sent its military in Syria and squarely worked itself through the Syrian territory to bring 5,000 square kilometers under its control to thwart the Kurds who, in turn, continue to receive support from the US and have recently been approached by the Russians and invited in the Astana-Geneva peace process.

In this behalf, Turkey’s push for capturing the strategic city of Manjib is yet again primarily motivated by its bid to crush Kurds and extend its own zone/sphere of direct influence in Syria. It has, however, invited strong military response from the US as well as Russia, leading the former to send its own marines in the territory to push the Turkish forces back to where they were advancing from.

As far as Turkey’s position is concerned, it sees in the US moves a clear policy of protecting the Kurds who are controlling a significant part of the city. The US forces, who could not have arrived in the city without Russian co-operation (read: SDF had already handed a big part of the city to the Syrian army just hours before the US forces arrived there), are officially there to prevent the city from becoming a flashpoint between the Turks and Kurds.

Abu Amjed, the head of the Manbij Military Council, said in an interview last week that his fighters were being shot at by Turkish troops and that he considered Turkey to be more of a threat than ISIS. As the situation escalated, the Manbij Military Council has tried to pre-empt any Turkish offensive by striking a deal with Russia to turn nearby villages under its control over to Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

With Syrian forces now present in Manjib coupled with the presence of US marines, the situation for Turkey is trickier than ever. Turkey risks isolation if tries to break the buffer and challenge Russia and the US, who are locked in an unusual alliance in Manjib.

Although Turkey assured in the unusual meeting of Russian, American and Turkish military officials held on Tuesday, March 7, in Turkey that there could be no operation in Manjib without the co-operation of both Russia and the US, it is still quite obvious that Turkey’s Achilles heel is Kurds and they have not retreated, as Turkey has been demanding, to the east of Euphrates river. They are present on the ground and their alliance with the Syrian army poses a situation that might actually lead to a Kurdish stronghold in Syria, on the Turkish border, soon than later. Hence, the Turkish imperative of pushing Kurds to the east of Euphrates.

This imperative, however, pits it explicitly against the US, which is there, according to Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, as a “visible sign of deterrence and reassurance.” It is deterring the Turks and reassuring the Kurds of continued US support. According to a formal Pentagon official, Michael Maloof:

“It does make sense for the US to go in only to break up a potential fight between groups on the same side. You’ve got the Turks who are threatening to go after the Kurds who were part of the Syrian defense forces. The US presence there is meant to try and deter that, and to keep them focused on fighting ISIS rather than between each other. I think the US has worked with the Kurds to get them to allow the Arab component of the Syrian defense forces to take the lead in Manbij. Because the Turks have made it very clear, they are going to come in, and if the Kurds are there, they are going to fight them. And that is not what would be useful for defeating ISIS… The US wants to work with the Kurds, and that is what has caused this big split between the US and Turkey.”

While Turkey had Russia, in the past, to resort to when facing a split with the US, this time Russia has equally sent a clear message, indicating the limits of Turkey’s presence in Syria. While Turkey has already violated terms of understanding reached with Russia with regard to the extent of territory it could have, the Russia-US alliance in Manjib has become another obstacle.

In the wake of Russia-US deal in Manjib, it is clear that Russia is not looking for isolating the US in any way. On the contrary, they probably want to bring America to their side in order to have some sort of a group or a bigger coalition than there already is. Within this hypothetic collation, there does not appear to be any space for side-lining the Kurds, something that not only is angering the Turks but also forcing them into a self-inflicted isolation in Syria.

Turkey’s attempts to acquire a position in Syria where it can call the shots has clearly backfired. On the one hand, it has pushed Russia to the US and unwittingly facilitated a deal between them in Manjib, and on the other, its anti-Kurd drive has pushed the US to threaten to stop providing support to the Turkey-backed militias. As such, contrary to Erdogan’s demand for stopping arming Kurds, the Trump administration went on to provide the SDF with, at their request, with anti-tank weapons, mine detectors and other military equipment.

And as the sequences of events indicates, a greater but silent convergence between Russia and the US is taking place in Syria as they drive towards pushing the ISIS completely out of Syria by capturing Raqqa. Whereas this convergence has off-set Turkey’s ambitious 5,000 km safe zone, it might also lead to other set-backs if it continues to persist in pushing Kurds and thereby challenge both the US and Russia, who, unlike Turkey, tend to fight ISIS rather than Kurds.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.