Why a new Turkish offensive in Syria is unlikely
Since President Donald Trump announced in mid-December that US troops would be withdrawing from Syria, speculation has been rife regarding Turkey’s threat to launch another military offensive against Syrian-Kurdish forces.
The threat by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed talks with Trump, and the latter’s surprise withdrawal announcement came just days later, leading to the widespread belief that the US president had given the green light for such an offensive.
With Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces reinforcing their positions near areas controlled by Syrian Kurds, and Turkey’s defense minister threatening after Trump’s announcement that Syrian-Kurdish fighters “will be buried in their ditches,” the speculation was that, if not imminent, the offensive was a matter of when, not if.
But such speculation rested on the very shaky assumption that implementation of the US withdrawal would adhere to Trump’s initial announcement, particularly in terms of the timeline. As has happened so often in his foreign policy, not even Trump has adhered to it.
His initial announcement caused a major political backlash at home, including from within the Republican Party and even his own administration, with high-profile resignations in protest. That has led to a series of vague, confusing and contradictory follow-up statements in a clumsy attempt to limit the damage caused by what seems to have been one of Trump’s hallmark whims on major policy issues.
Having first said US troops would be “coming back now,” he then said it would happen within 30 days. Trump later said the withdrawal would be carried out “slowly,” but days afterward refused to give a timeline. The State Department confirmed that there will be no timeline.
Then, on Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the withdrawal is conditional on Turkey assuring the safety of Syrian-Kurdish forces allied with the US (the antithesis of what Ankara has threatened), and on Daesh’s defeat in Syria (Trump already declared the group defeated there last month, when he announced the withdrawal). Confused? You should be. But surprised? No — this is the Trump administration in its chaotic quintessence.
Unsurprisingly, Erdogan denounced Bolton’s condition regarding Syrian Kurds as “seriously mistaken.” Erdogan even refused to meet Bolton, who was in Turkey on Tuesday to discuss the US withdrawal and seek assurances regarding Syrian-Kurdish forces. The snub was Erdogan’s answer.
Having seemed imminent just a few weeks ago, a US withdrawal from Syria any time soon now looks like an increasingly distant prospect. And, as long as American troops are stationed among Syrian-Kurdish forces, there will be no Turkish-led offensive.
Having seemed imminent just a few weeks ago, a US withdrawal from Syria any time soon now looks like an increasingly distant prospect.
The longer the US withdrawal takes to implement, the more time Syrian Kurds have to negotiate the deal they have been seeking with the Assad regime and its key backer Russia to stave off a Turkish assault regardless of what Washington does. Given the failure of previous talks between the regime and the Kurds, and the gulf that divides the two sides on certain key topics, the Kurds need all the time they can get.
One of the biggest hurdles will be reconciling the Kurds’ self-declared autonomy with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s repeated vow to extend his authority to the entire country. Syria’s foreign minister recently said federalism was unacceptable.
Time may also be required on the Turkish side too, given that allied Syrian rebels are now focused on countering a major extremist advance that has included the capture of more than 20 towns and villages from rebel groups since last week.
In any case, the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers said their governments would coordinate military activities in Syria in the wake of the US withdrawal announcement. Turkey’s foreign minister added that Ankara would work with Moscow and Tehran “to speed up the arrival of a political settlement” to the war in Syria.
With pro-regime and Turkish-allied forces massing around the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij, Russia and Iran will no doubt exert pressure on Ankara to abandon any military action that could result in direct clashes with the regime. This will likely be the focus of a summit that Russia has said it will host with Iran and Turkey early this year.
Moscow and Tehran will probably push for an accommodation between Ankara and Damascus that would entail Assad extending his control over Kurdish-controlled territory in exchange for security guarantees to Turkey. This would be a bitter pill to swallow for both sides given the enmity between Damascus and Ankara, but swallow it they probably would.
Assad’s forces would be no match for Turkey’s, and the latter would want to avoid falling out with Russia and Iran, particularly at a time of tense relations between Ankara and other regional powers. Assad knows that Moscow and Tehran want to maintain and cultivate ties with Ankara, while Turkey knows that Russia and Iran are intent on expanding his authority.
It is between these considerations that an accommodation will be found. Damascus could sell it as a victory in terms of extending its authority, and Ankara could sell it as a negotiated defeat of its Syrian-Kurdish enemies.
The Kurds would be the losers because, with a US withdrawal and their subsequent pleas for help from the regime and its allies, they do not have the leverage to negotiate favorable terms, and Moscow and Tehran know that Ankara would reject any deal that it views as concessionary to the Kurds. All these factors make a Turkish military offensive unlikely, but that will not be the cause for celebration that Syrian Kurds might have hoped for.
- Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs Twitter: @sharifnash