While last two weeks have seen the erstwhile—and current—NATO allies, the US and Turkey, exchanging serious words of warning over Turkey’s ground and air operations against the US-backed Kurdish militias, Turkey doesn’t seem to be deterred, nor does it appear that it will abandon its strategic goals. While such a situation is nothing short of a serious embarrassment for the US, as we pointed out in one of our recent pieces, past two weeks have only proved that the crisis is not going to just die down. On the contrary, with every step that Turkey takes towards eliminating its ‘Kurdish threat’, the US ability to manipulate the ground situation in Syria becomes weaker, thus speedifying the near permanent departure of the US from the Middle East and a potential end of Pax Americana. They many changes the Syrian war has brought to the region has triggered a wave of geo-political upheavals, particularly the ascendance of Iran and then Russia, which have made the US concede the Middle East, a region that has been at the receiving end of occidental manipulations since the end of World War One; hence, the US’ inability to turn Turkey around the Kurdish question and prevent it from forcing them out of the territories under their control in Syria.
Despite the US warnings to the contrary, Turkey isn’t stopping short of clearing Manbij, after Afrin, of Kurdish elements. Speaking to the members of his party in the Turkish Parliament, Turkey’s Erdogan said, pointing his words sharply at the US, “They tell us, ‘Don’t come to Manbij.’ We will come to hand over these territories to their rightful owners.” Who are the rightful owners? Of course, it is the Syrians. But where does this emphasis on ‘handing over Manbij to the rightful owners’ place Turkey in the regional geo-political matrix?
To locate Turkey in the regional matrix, we first have to understand what other major regional actors are striving to achieve in and through Syria. In other words, let’s see what the matrix is.
The Regional Matrix
First of all, Turkey’s operation Oliver Branch could not have been possible without direct and indirect support from the Russians, who are currently controlling the entire Syrian end-game, and taking it to a direction that ensures Syria’s territorial integrity and restoration of the Syrian regime’s sovereignty over the whole of Syria. Given the Russian objectives, Turkey’s Oliver Branch doesn’t diverge but converge with the Russian objectives as this operation is aimed at clearing the Syrian land of the Kurds and push them back to the pre-war positions. But the question is: why is Turkey doing it? Why not the Russians or the Syrian forces?
Of course, they could have done the same, but it would have equally made the Russians a target of criticism and propaganda for its ‘hegemonic’ ambitions. Turkey, on the other hand, has its long standing security concerns vis-à-vis Kurds—and the fact that the US had pledged and not fulfilled its promise that the Kurdish forces would withdraw from Manbij after clearing the territory of ISIS. This hasn’t happened, leaving Turkey with no option but to intervene.
And while Turkey is clearing a strategic territory of the Kurds, it seems to be making things a lot easier for the Russian and Syrians as far their objective of restoring Syria’s pre-war territories is concerned. Before the beginning of Oliver Branch, the Russians had asked the Kurds to leave the region, but the Kurds didn’t live up to it and neither did the US, giving the Russians a genuine excuse to vacate the area and let the Turks do their thing.
And with everyday passing, western speculative whispers of Turkey-Russia clash in Syria are dying out. After initially indirectly supporting Turkey’s Afrin operation, the Turkish resumed its airstrikes in Afrin, which had been halted following the downing of a Russian jet in Idlib, only after a telephonic conversation between Erdogan and Putin, thus indicating the extent of caution Turkey was following to avoid any possibility of conflict with Russian interests.
Turkish steps are therefore in line with Russian objectives of strengthening Syrian regime. And with Iran, too, maintaining a sort of ‘silent consent’ over Turkish incursions in Syria, we can only expect more co-operation among these key players in Syria.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has already accepted Erdogan’s invitation to attend a Turkey-Iran-Russia summit in Istanbul on Syria. Therefore, as we analyzed in one of our previous pieces for NEO, Oliver Branch is not going to damage Turkey-Russia alliance, instead it is opening a new chapter of co-operation between the three countries. The holding of trilateral summit in Istanbul also symbolically places Turley firmly in the Russian-Iranian camp, and the fact that both Russian and Iranian leaders will attend it signifies the importance these two countries attach to the otherwise NATO’ second biggest military power after the US.
And even though it is far from clear that the US will pull out of Manbij, the fact that without taking Manbij, Turkey’s strategic objectives will remain unfulfilled hints the possibility of further deterioration in Turkey-US bi-lateral relations—something that would directly add to Moscow’s ability in Syria as the chief power-broker. And even if the US refuses to pull out, it will push Turkey with more force to the Russian camp.
Besides it, the fact that Turkey will continue to target Kurdish militias in Syria highlights how the US would continue to lose its main ground force in Syria, consequently sequestering the US influence in the broader Syrian conflict.
And if the US agrees to pull out of Manbij, it will automatically lose its entire ability to influence ground realities—something that will be akin to signing its own death warrants. Syria for the US is, therefore, becoming a deep quagmire, leaving which only mark a permanent end to its dominance in the Middle East—and the end is nonetheless near even if it stays in Manjib, for is too small a territory for the US to manipulate the entire Syrian end-game.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.