Following the recent Turkish offensive into north-eastern Syria, there is a new development in the region almost every day while a new balance of power is being established in the Syrian territories.
Contradictory statements of the U.S. President Donald Trump, internal tensions within the American state, the increasing impact of Russia on all actors in the region, statements of Iran and Syria against Turkish occupation, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)’s agreement with the Syrian government despite its ongoing U.S. ‘alliance’ have been some of the recent developments.
After all of these developments, the media has been discussing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s possible visit to Washington on November 13, 2019. As Erdoğan says, "I have not yet made up my mind [on the visit]", the parliamentary opposition in Turkey suggests that the Turkish President should not pay a visit to the U.S. due to Trump’s threatening letter to Erdoğan over Turkish military offensive in north-eastern Syria, urging him, "Don’t be a fool!".
Prior to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s possible visit to Washington, soL news interviewed the journalist and the Middle East expert Ali Örnek on the changing balance of power and the recent developments in Syria.
I would like to start with the killing of the Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after a U.S. operation in Syria’s Idlib. Do you think it has something to do with the recent Turkish offensive against the pro-Kurdish YPG in north-eastern Syria?
Definitely. I believe that the killing of the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a raid by American special operations forces is quite parallel to the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin-Laden in many respects.
The death of Bin-Laden has weakened the center of al-Qaeda, and this weakness has made it easier to be used by the U.S. in its imperialist aggression in the region ─ as can be clearly seen in the case of Syria. I think there is a similar intention behind the killing of al-Baghdadi in 2019 just after the debates in the U.S. on the military existence in Syria and Turkish military operation have been sparked. Apparently, the U.S. aims to reshape the jihadist groups in Syria. This may also be related to the new ‘restructuring’ plan of the American government by calling an audible to deploy troops for the oil wells in Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria ─ which is actually not so advantageous. On top of it, Washington probably knows that the U.S. cannot achieve the regime change in Syria by deploying troops in oil wells that are no longer profitable in Deir ez-Zor. However, there are Sunni Arab tribes in the region extending from the east of Deir ez-Zor to Iraq’s al-Anbar Governorate. These tribes were the most significant forces of the IS.
From my standpoint, the U.S. has paved the way for a much more concentrated, comprehensive and direct period of aggression against Iran. Why would Washington not use the reconsolidated/restructured jihadist forces against pro-Iranian groups in the region extending from Iraq to Lebanon? I think that Turkey would play a significant role in such a plan. As is now clearly expressed in the media of the U.S., Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, and James Jeffrey, the U.S Special Representative for Syria, who had signaled to the Turkish offensive into Syria on Oct. 8 the green light, are the notorious anti-Iran politicians. For instance, what we have learned from the leaked information is that James Jeffrey prevented the U.S. government’s denunciation of the murder of Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish-Syrian politician and the Secretary-General of the Future Syria Party, in an attack carried out by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants. The reason behind Jeffrey’s attempts to prevent this denunciation is that Washington is likely to need them in the future.
You said that Turkey would play a significant role in such a U.S. plan. Is it possible to detail this issue a little more?
Donald Trump had largely followed his predecessor Barack Obama’s plan in Syria, but there are certain differences in the U.S. foreign policy towards Iran considering the Trump and Obama administrations.
The Trump administration aims to defeat Iran through much more aggressive and direct tools compared to the Obama administration. Washington understood that the current allies in the region are not enough to defeat Iran, and therefore it both needs Turkey and jihadist groups backed by the Turkish government. So, the Trump administration has given a green light to Turkish military operation into Syria in order to include Turkey in its plans. Yet, the U.S. could not enter this new era with a perfect plan; therefore, it initiated an open-ended process for the new plans in the region. And this situation leads to contradictory messages within the U.S. administration, even including President Donald Trump’s bizarre and paradoxical statements.
However, if we look closely, Trump’s contradictory statements or the tensions between the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration over Turkey do not paralyze the U.S., but rather I think it prevents the explicit shifting American foreign policy from turning into a complete defeat. For instance, the recent workings of the U.S. Senate for Turkey sanctions packages ensure that the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could not cross the lines drawn by Washington. The Kurdish YPG, which accuses the U.S. of betrayal, can be hopeful for exactly the same reason due to the presence of pro-Kurdish U.S. member within the Congress.
I would like to also remind that Iran was the country that strongly criticized Turkey’s "Peace Spring Operation" in the international system. In my opinion, Tehran is aware of the primary purpose of U.S. government’s green light to Turkey for its offensive into northern Syria. The Russians seem more relaxed. I don’t think that Russian President Vladimir Putin would reject the recognition of the Assad government or the ending of the proxy war against it in return for the withdrawal of Moscow’s Iranian-affiliated militias from the Syrian territories.
‘THIS IS NOT THE FIRST THAT THE U.S. HAS CHANGED ITS PLANS IN SYRIA’
It can be said that Trump pursued Obama’s policies over Syria, but Obama’s plans have never cast a role for Turkey. Moreover, some media sources reported that the U.S. officials had mocked Erdoğan’s proposal to Obama for a joint military operation to Raqqa. What has changed now?
The Syrian people and army have resisted the war against the U.S.-led coalition of proxy forces including jihadist terrorists. It has been understood that the disintegration of Syria was not as easy as the coalition forces thought at the beginning. This point is quite important because this is not the first time that the U.S. has changed its plans in Syria. This is the third plan that has been changed since 2011. Until mid-2012, "the Yemen-model" was on the agenda. This model aimed to force Assad to resign through a combination of armed and ‘peaceful’ protests along with diplomatic pressure. When this model has failed to overthrow the Assad government, the U.S.-led coalition attempted to deploy jihadists into Syria and embarked on the so-called ‘conquest’ of Damascus and Aleppo.
Yet, this plan, once again, collapsed in summer 2013 when the Lebanese Hezbollah was involved in the war in favor of the Syrian army [Syrian Arab Army]. Even though the Obama administration pulled back from its direct intervention policy, the regime change plan in Syria was not abandoned. For this reason, the then-U.S. President Barack Obama announced in September 2013 that his goal in Syria was to "decline the Islamic State (IS)". In fact, as John Kerry, the Secretary of State of the Obama administration, confessed, the U.S. had monitored the rise of IS terrorists and their deadly attacks even in Damascus in order to "persuade Bashar al-Assad to diplomatic negotiations".
When the proxy war did not come up with the expected results, it became a more attractive plan to occupy the territories captured by IS through another proxy force. Because this region [territories occupied by IS] was home to three large hydroelectric power plants and valuable agricultural lands where Syria’s oil and natural gas reserves as well as cotton and grain production were almost completely made. The proxy force sought by the U.S. was the Kurdish YPG, which the U.S. government had begun to negotiate in 2013 long before the IS attacks on Kobane, a northern Syrian town located just south of the Turkish-Syria border, in 2014, as Robert S. Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, admitted later. They proceeded quickly in this plan. So much so that then-U.S. Secretary of State, the predecessor of Mike Pompeo, had begun to articulate that they looted almost all of Syria’s economic resources, and would use it in regime change in the country.
However, "the fight against the IS" plan began to pose problems at the end of 2017, as in the period of the so-called conquest of Damascus and Aleppo. Although the YPG seized all the wealth possessed by the IS until the beginning of 2018, this situation did not make the Syrian government step back. Firstly, the new plan of the U.S. government had not given the expected result again. As Damascus refused the U.S. proposals, the Syrian army declared its decisive victory on the fronts of Daraa, Damascus, and Homs after Aleppo with the help of its allies, and besieged jihadists in Syria’s Idlib Governorate.
Secondly, the region under the control of the YPG had economic wealth and resources but lacked the facilities to operate and process them. Turkey, which was the only country to sell these products, had closed its border because of the PYD’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) deemed as a terrorist organization by Ankara. Therefore, the region controlled by the YPG had to remain economically dependent on Damascus.
Thirdly, the Syrian Kurds claimed to be represented by the YPG form 10 percent of the total population, while the YPG-controlled region corresponded to one-third of Syria. It can be claimed that there are also Arabs under the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias founded in 2015, which is the backbone of the YPG. However, these Arabs consist of two backgrounds in essence: 1) Former al-Qaeda linked groups incurred the wrath of the Islamic State or the former responsive FSA affiliated groups after Turkey favored rival groups within the FSA; 2) Former pro-IS tribes realizing that ‘the Caliphate of Baghdadi has come to an end’.
The problem was not limited to Syria. "An autonomous region" with Syrian resources pledged to the YPG by the U.S. government was a source of continuous tension in the relations between Ankara and Washington, as Iran and Russia were now taking advantage of this situation. And this, in particular, led the U.S. to set off the alarm bells at the U.S. European Command (US/EUCOM), whose main purpose was to squeeze Russia strategically.
For Washington insisting that Iran be the primary target in the Middle East, Iran was the greatest military power of the region, and the absence of Turkey as an ally with its strong ties with jihadist groups was an important loss. Therefore, by allowing a Turkish military operation into north-eastern Syria, the U.S. has actually changed its plans once again in which the YPG is the proxy force in Syria.
‘THE AIM WAS TO CONVINCE THE YPG AND TURKEY OF A NEW PROCESS’
What was the aim while giving a green light to Turkey for a military operation? Did all go well for the U.S.?
What the U.S. desired has more or less become clear today. In my opinion, the U.S. government aimed to convince the YPG and the Turkish government of ‘a new process’ in Syria by giving the Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds a green light. On the one hand, Washington would force the YPG to be more concessive; on the other hand, it would be able to include Turkey in its new plans more effectively. In this respect, I would like to remind you that Trump had stated, "Sometimes you have to let them fight a little while. Sometimes you have to let them fight. It's like two kids in a lot, you got to let them fight and then you pull them apart." This statement is quite important.
And it appears today that Washington was actually forcing Turkey and the YPG to launch a new "democratic initiative process". If the U.S. managed to achieve its aim, Turkey would have been involved in the new American plans much more efficiently, and both anti-Iran and anti-Russia fronts would have been fortified in the region. At the same time, Turkey’s involvement in this plan would have removed the dependence of the YPG-controlled territories on Damascus and would have played a vital role in the destabilization plan of the Syrian government.
However, Turkey misused the green light given by the U.S. government to completely liquidate the YPG. We know that Washington has prevented the YPG from negotiating with the Syrian government until that day. Yet, when the threat posed by the Turkish offensive during the Operation Peace Spring becomes more dangerous and devastating than the U.S. veto, the YPG had to seek help from the Syrian government. As a result, this situation allowed the Syrian army to retake most of the territories in the northeast of Syria without engaging in any conflict. I believe that that is why the U.S. decided to deploy troops to the oil fields of Deir ez-Zor by changing its decision towards the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syrian territories. In the first plan proposed by Washington, it is possible that Turkey would be in the north, while the YPG would deploy in Deir ez-Zor. However, the rapid return of the Syrian army to the region caused Washington to set off the alarm bells.
‘MANBIJ IS LIKE A GOOD-WILL GIFT IN NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN WASHINGTON AND MOSCOW’
Particularly Turkish mainstream media and government officials claimed that ‘Turkey got what it wants’ in the agreement declared after the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Do you also mean that ‘Turkey has gained an absolute achievement’?
No. Turkey could not get what it exactly wants. Furthermore, Turkey has been thrown in front of Russia. The U.S. punished Turkey’s misuse in north-eastern Syria against the Kurds by handing Manbij, perhaps the most important city under the control of the YPG, over to Russia, thus to the Syrian government. So, Turkey has failed to merge the territories it occupied by the Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Peace Spring following the Syrian army retook the control of Manbij. In this way, the U.S. narrowed Turkey’s sphere of initiative in Syria in the interests of Washington. At that point, I would like to point out that the officials from the U.S. Department of Defense have made it clear to the press that the U.S. forces have handed over Manbij to Russia. It was actually a bold statement during a period when Trump was accused of being ‘‘the man of Russia’’. I think he gave a message to Turkey by declaring it. Another point is that Manbij seems like a good-will gift in negotiations between Washington and Moscow on Iran-affiliated militia forces in Syria.
What criteria should we evaluate the success or failure of Turkey, or more precisely the Erdoğan government, in terms of its targets under such circumstances?
Turkey’s objectives were as follows when starting the Operation Peace Spring:
The YPG would be liquidated, and the territories occupied under the pretext of ‘the presence of the YPG, a terrorist organization’ would be used as a trump card against Damascus. If you remember, both Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and the Senior Adviser to the Turkish President, Yasin Aktay, had made this intention clear.
By stating that the existence of Turkey in Syria will not end without achieving ‘a political solution’, Çavuşoğlu had also admitted that Turkey’s plans for regime change in Syria still continue, and the territories occupied by the Turkish Armed Forces and the FSA would be used for this aim.
These statements of the Turkish Foreign Minister were, in fact, a part of Turkey’s efforts to become the sole proxy force of the U.S. imperialism in Syria, because Turkish government thought that if Turkey manages to control larger territories in Syria, it could much more efficiently eliminate the YPG in the region. I think it is not possible to talk about a ‘victory’ for the Erdoğan administration because it could not achieve this goal. On the contrary, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who met with Putin in Sochi five days after the Erdoğan-Pence meeting, was forced to accept the return of the Syrian army to the Turkish border.
In this respect, this is not a triumphant image of Turkey.
However, to tell the truth, Turkey showed that it has an influential power on the jihadist movements the U.S. wants to redesign. In other words, Turkey has certainly strengthened its hand in Syria compared to the pre-Operation Peace Spring period. I do not think that Turkey has shifted its paradigm with the rise of the YPG in Syria. There have been certain updates in policies in terms of instruments. Turkish President Erdoğan and his officials might let go of praying in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, but Erdoğan’s regional claim begins in Syria and this aim is not so undemanding that it cannot be reduced to cracking down on the YPG.
As Russia has limited Turkey’s field of operation in the region, it has also made the Turkish military presence in Syria status-quo, at least for now. On the other hand, Russia claims the withdrawal of illegal military forces and conducts negotiations with the SDF commanders. When considered from this point of view, can we say that Russia is trying to act in harmony with Donald Trump?
Exactly! I do not think that Russia has a goal of removing the U.S. forces from the region and disrupting the American hegemony. Similarly, I cannot say that the U.S. would be greatly dissatisfied with the rise of Russia in Syria under the current circumstances. The U.S. knows that it has to deal with Russia in some way in Syria. If this deal is in the interests of anti-Iran policies of the U.S., why would it be a bad thing? Of course, the current situation in the region is not satisfactory for Washington, but I think it is the best of a bad bunch for the U.S. government.
‘DIRECT OR INDIRECT TALKS WITH TURKEY AND YPG WILL DETERMINE SYRIA’S NEXT MOVE’
Finally, where is Syria in this process? And, the U.S. has decided to keep some troops in Syria. How long do you think this occupation can be sustained by imperialist forces and its jihadist collaborators?
Syria and Russia are certainly the two countries getting the best of this process. Although the U.S. plans could not be ultimately defeated Damascus retook the control of Syria’s northern borders without engaging in any conflict. Moreover, the affirmative but unwilling statements from both Turkey and the YPG regarding the Syrian army’s advance in northern Syria indicate that the current circumstances in the region are in favor of the Assad government. Because Turkey had forced the Syrian army to withdraw from the north of the country, while the YPG had claimed last year that the Syrian government would never return to the regions they have liberated from IS and other jihadist groups. However, it should not be forgotten that the U.S. plans could not be ultimately defeated yet.
The U.S. now aims to prevent from being completely defeated and put the flesh on the bones of its plans in Syria by using sanctions against Erdoğan, using Turkey against the YPG, and using military deterrence against Damascus.
Although few U.S. troops remained in Syria led to comments that Syria cannot be prevented from retaking the control of oil wells, it is necessary to be cautious while monitoring and evaluating the current and future developments in the region. The U.S. has a very deterrent air force in Qatar. I believe that Syria will abstain from direct conflict with the U.S. at this stage. In my opinion, Syria will firstly try to destroy the jihadists in Idlib. After that, it seems direct and indirect talks with Turkey and the YPG will determine Syria’s next move.
If Damascus can reach a political agreement with the YPG ─ as you know that the deployment of the Syrian army to the north was because of security concerns of both sides and was a result of a military agreement ─ it is quite clear that the next target of the Syrian army would be the regions controlled by Turkish-backed jihadist forces after the Operation Olive Branch, the Operation Euphrates Shield, and the Operation Peace Spring.
If Damascus reaches an agreement with Ankara, the Syrian army will probably try to use its military power to the east of the Euphrates more. Yet, I think that the possibility of both agreements is quite low under the current circumstances in the region.