The Turkish Skirmish

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Turkey’s military operation in Syria came to a 120-hour pause after US Vice President Mike Pence, visited Ankara to discuss the ceasefire in a meeting with President Erdogan. According to the agreement, Turkey will allow Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to retreat from the 32km ‘safe zone’ in return for control of the region, both items on Turkish agenda from the beginning of Operation Peace Spring.

A letter to the Turkish leader dated the same day as the operation began, surfaced recently. In the letter President Trump called on Erdogan to “not be a fool” and contained a confidential letter from a willing-to-negotiate General Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF. As late as 16th October, President Trump’s call for a ceasefire was denied by his Turkish counterpart. Prior to the ceasefire call, a number of sanctions and embargoes were set up against Turkey by the European Union and the United States for its unilateral military action in Syria. The resolute Turks had resisted rolling back their offensive.

The Trigger

President Trump’s decision to pull out troops from Syria led to a new chapter in the country’s long-standing war-torn history. On 6th October, over a phone call, President Erdogan informed President Trump that a cross-border action will be executed soon. The latter had long been considering ending the US participation in the civil conflict and informed the Turkish president that the US would not take sides in the conflict. Trump defended his decision by saying that “it’s not our border”, at a White House press meeting, and called the Kurds “no angels”.

At a time when the SDF, America’s reliable and frontline ally in the struggle against IS, needed them most, the US military’s departure from Northern Syria signaled a “green-light” to Ankara. On 9th October, the Turkish offensive planned to cleanse its Southern borders from Kurdish influence and setup a safe zone for Syrian refugees was put into motion.

After the Syrian civil war began in 2012, a number of groups honed in on the power vacuum to gain influence. The YPG, a Kurdish militia quickly gained the status of an ally with the United States as it ventured into the conflict in 2014 to defeat ISIS. Following a number of US interventions, the YPG was watered down and conjoined with other Arab militias to form the SDF. This move was made to ease Turkish concerns for security of its border areas given Turkey’s long history with Kurdish rebel groups.

The Turks, who had been raising concerns about the 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey had been calling on building a safe zone for several years to ensure a Syrian enclave for refugees. Running 480 km along the Syrian border, the 32km deep zone is planned to be under the control of Turkish forces which have already established a smaller encalave on the west of the Euphrates. Faced with a full on offensive by the numerically and technologically superior Turkish military and abandoned by the US, the SDF demonstrated quick thinking by shifting its allegiance towards Assad’s Syrian government in order to contain the Turkish incursion. The SDF decision to invite Syrian Arab Army reinforcements in large cities such as Manjib and Kobane came just hours after the operation began.

The Impact

Kurds, who form the largest ethnic minority in Syria constitute between 5-10 percent of the country’s 21 million population according to 2011 estimates. While they form a majority in Northern Syria, Kurds are also settled the mountainous regions at the confluence of Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Being notorious for their separatist-political movements under the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and insurgencies by their military wing, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), they have long been seeking autonomy within Turkey which has been denied to them.

The humanitarian impact produced by the operation immediately affects the people sandwiched between the warring parties. Some 1.5 million people in the safe zone already require resources to survive, while Turkey looks to relocate nearly 2 million of the 3.6 million refugees it currently houses in its boundaries. Since the offensive began up to 160,000 civilians have been displaced and according to UNOCHA the number is expected to exceed 400,000. Aid and relief organizations are rushing to the scene with humanitarian support as the numbers of displaced begin to surface.

What to Expect Next

What remains to be seen is how this new chapter in Syria’s conflict unfolds in the coming weeks. For the time being, the intentions of SDF remain unclear, as General Mazloum said the agreement was valid only for the border between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyed. This makes it clear that the SDF is not ready to give up their land without a fight. They will maintain positions at strategically important locations around Manbij and Kobane, among others. All while figuring out how to negotiate relocation and repositioning with Damascus.

Turkey will bank on this opportunity as much as it can and balance the act with NATO after this bold move, leveraging their position. Ankara also has a combined herculean task of relocating the refugees and drawing Kurds away from the safe zone, with the added burden of managing the prison camps containing all the ISIS prisoners. ISIS prison breaks and re-emergence pose the gravest of dangers to what has been achieved in Syria after the victory in March. There are an estimated 12,000 IS members near the safe zone, and a further 70,000 IS dependents in other camps. An ISIS outbreak could potentially destabilize the security situation across the wider region.

Regional geopolitics is another major concern. Moscow is emerging as the new powerbroker in Middle East, taking advantage of the wedge between NATO and Turkey, as it continues to back Damascus, a long-time ally. Meanwhile, Kremlin has announced that Erdogan accepted President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to visit Russia, while stressing on “avoiding conflict between subdivisions of the Turkish army and Syrian government forces.” As it turns out, Putin’s trip to Saudi Arabia and UAE could indicate a wider shift in the region as several traditional US allies will be looking at Trump’s decision to pull out from Kurd areas as an early indicator of receding US interest and credibility in its alliances.

Iran, which also houses a large Kurdish population and is a Syrian ally, has also urged the Turkish government to avoid military action in Syria. This comes as they begin an unannounced military drill near the North-Eastern border, touching Turkey. The US departure also meant a victory and enhanced role in Middle Eastern geopolitics for Tehran which has long been America’s most potent opposition in the wider Middle East. The Turkish operation has shifted entrenched alliances in the region and a confluence of new interests is likely to emerge and consolidate in the coming months.