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26.01.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Oliver Branch: Turkey’s Bid to Modify the ‘Syrian End-game’


Whereas Turkey’s operation Oliver Branch is nothing short of an attack on the forces allied undoubtedly with the US, and thereby an attack on the US, this operation is as much a result of Turkey-US conflict of interests as it is aimed at modifying the US ‘end-game’ for Syria. The US ‘end-game’ for Syria envisages a Syria clearly portioned between the Syrian regime and the Kurds. This ‘end-game’ is, however, nothing short of a nightmare for the Turks who have moved, in the last 5 years or so, from initially supporting the Jihadi elements such as ISIS to creating their own militias and to allying with Russia to strangulate the growing power of Kurdish militias and thus prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan on Turkish borders. In other words—and contrary to what is being hoped in the West—neither Russia nor Syria will have any major objection to Turkish intervention because this intervention is directly thwarting the US objectives.

Oliver Branch will not damage Turkey-Russia alliance

Turkey, by invading Syria, is therefore not running the risk of breaking or significantly damaging the Turkey, Russia, Syria, Iran alliance. While Turkey may end up controlling a part of Syria, Turkey is neither interested in assimilating Afrin as its own territory nor is going to establish its direct military control.

While reports in the western media have tended to project this operation as an “assault on Russia” because Afrin is west of the Euphrates, where Russia, not the US, has been controlling the air space ever since it sent its air force to Syria in 2015 to salvage the Assad regime. However, instead of this operation being an ‘evidence’ of a crack in Turkey-Russia alliance, it largely underscores the fact that this operation is a result of broader understanding reached between Ankara and Moscow.

There remains little doubt in that this operation will directly work to the US’ rather than Russian or Syrian disadvantage. To begin with, Afrin is a place which has been the gateway to the Amanos Mountains, where Kurdish guerillas and Turkish army have clashed numerous times. And, according to various media reports, Kurdish militias present in Afrin have amassed a big stockpile of weapons, thanks to American supplies since 2016, including multiple rocket launchers, missile launchers, 80- and 120-mm mortars, MK19 grenade launchers, US-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, reconnaissance vehicles, FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles, and so on.

One of the many purposes behind the provision of such weapons was clearly to enable these militias to establish their own control and governments. And, while the establishment of such government would have directly worked to Turkey’s disadvantage, even Russia had to warn against the consequences of such steps. It was, as such, only days before the commencement of Oliver Branch that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that, “It’s a fact that US forces are seriously involved in creating alternative government bodies on vast part of the Syrian territory.

Therefore, as far as the question of preventing Syria’s de facto break up is concerned, Turkey and Russia, and by default Syria as well, are on the same page. But Russian and Syrian acquiescence has not come without having Turkey to pay for it elsewhere.

Besides Turkey’s sustained co-operation with Russia in successfully holding Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi on January 29-30, which is a necessary step toward national reconciliation and settlement, the fact cannot be overlooked that just as Turkish forces are moving in Afrin, Syrian forces are moving in Idlib, lying to the west of Afrin and bordering the coastal province of Latakia, where Russia’s air and naval bases are located. It is worth remembering here that Idlib is where Turkey and Russia have previously collaborated and freed it from terrorists. It was in October 2017 when Turkish reconnaissance forces had moved into Idlib and established lines of control.

And, if all things go according to the plan, that is if Turkey comes to control Afrin and Syrian forces come to control Idlib, Washington’s dream of establishing a territorially contiguous Kurdish region will become almost impossible to realize. This brings, notwithstanding the otherwise condemnation for Turkish incursions, Russia, Turkey, Syria and even Iran on the same page.

How will the US work out of this ‘invasion’?

And while a discreet arrangement seems to be working between Moscow and Ankara, at least at this stage, there still remains the American factor to be taken into account. This arrangement is clearly working to the US’ disadvantage as it will not only prevent the establishment of a contagious Kurdish zone but also thwart the creation of a 30,000-strong “border defense force” comprised of US-armed and funded Kurdish militias. This is likely to leave the US with little to no leverage on the ground in Syria. Part of this can be explained with reference to the lackadaisical response of the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who confined himself to saying that “we will work this out” with the Turks, clearly implying that the US will have to work something out and that they will have to wait.

Therefore, if things work out well for Turkey, it will not hesitate putting more pressure on the US for ending its support for Kurds, or the US might end up facing a drastic failure of its plans to keep an indefinite direct and indirect military presence in northern Syria. The only silver lining for the US is that Turkey remains a NATO member and that NATO supports Turkey’s deep concerns for self-defence, a support that comes out of NATO’s understanding of the ‘new cold war’ revving up with Russia and China in the coming years. Both the US and NATO understand how crucial Ankara will be in that war, and having Ankara in their camp will require nothing but a major compromise on the US’ traditional support for Kurds.

However, for now, the irony of the US-Turkey relations is that Turkish jets, pounding Kurdish militias, take off from the same military base in Incirlik that the US uses to support its Syria operations. And, if Turkey to force the US out of Incirlik a well, the US will lose another territory. As is increasingly evident, there are only bad options left for the US; and the question now is that of choosing the best bad one.

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

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