Is the Syrian front about to witness new disruption?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened a new incursion into the northeast of Syria. He said last Thursday that a decision would be taken on the matter. Turkey today can benefit from the position it acquired due to the Ukraine war to impose its conditions on the different players. On the other hand, Daraa in the southwest borders with Jordan and Israel seems increasingly unstable with the smuggling of arms and drugs.
The incursion has been a goal for Turkey for a while. Last year it had plans for an incursion, however, those hopes were strongly pushed back by the US. Now that Turkey is playing a key role in mediation with Russia and in preventing Russia’s navy from crossing the Bosporus and Dardanelles Strait, the US does not have the luxury to show Turkey a strong stand. Hence, Erdogan can put forward demands that he could not before.
To start with, Erdogan is facing a tough election battle next year. There are two main issues in Turkey regarding Syria: The refugees and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — the PKK — and its Syrian wing, the People’s Protection Units — the YPG. Erdogan opponents’ main criticism has been the issue of the Syrian refugees. Discontent with the refugees is growing by the day. The Turkish opposition is framing the presence of Syrian refugees as Erdogan’s fault. Turkey, on the other hand, does not see day and night between the YPG and the PKK, and this perception extends beyond Erdogan; there is general consensus around it.
The YPG empowerment is perceived as a threat for Turkey. Ankara sees that the US is supporting a terrorist organization that has been targeting the Turkish mainland for three decades. Hence the Turkish project of creating the buffer zone through relocating the Syrian refugees who come from all over Syria in the northeast.
However, the project is more of a negotiating card and a publicity stunt than a plausible plan in the pipeline. Internally, this project will diffuse the public anger against refugees and it is a pressure point Turkey can use with the US and the West. Turkey knows that the buffer zone is not viable. To start with, even if Turkey built compounds in the northeast, refugees would not voluntarily leave Turkey and move into them. Also, sending refugees back to other people’s homes is opening a can of worms. It will generate resistance and instability on Turkey’s borders. To add to that, it is a very big task to relocate 1 million people.
Today the US needs Turkey and Russia is too weak to oppose. While everyone was expecting to wake up on Friday to news of a large-scale invasion, this did not happen. It seems Turkey is negotiating for better terms with the Americans. The leverage Turkey has accumulated during the Ukraine crisis is going to be cashed in Syria. Every time Ankara conducted an incursion in Syria, it had before that brokered a deal with the US or Russia.
In the Syrian arena, the main concern is reining in Iran and protecting the borders of Jordan and Israel.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Turkey cannot conduct a cross-border operation and threaten the current rapprochement with the US or risk being the target of a new set of sanctions. Chances are Turkey is preparing the ground for a cross-border operation in which it pushes the YPG 30 km away from the Turkish borders. Today, pushing the YPG away from the borders seems to be the prime target of Turkey. Such an operation will create disruption on the Syrian scene.
In addition to the northern front, the southwest is another unstable front.The tactical strikes to keep Iran in line are no longer enough. Israel and Jordan are now on edge. Jordan has tried to strike a deal with Bashar Assad to keep its borders stable.
When King Abdullah met with US President Joe Biden, one main element on the agenda was the rehabilitation of Assad. The logic that Jordan followed was that Assad won and it is better to patch things up with him in order to minimize the damage that could come from his regime.
However, the gesture toward Assad did not make him adopt good behavior with his neighbor. On the contrary, drug and arms smuggling has been on the rise. Jordan recently said that pro-Iran Syrian army units were trying to smuggle drugs worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Gulf via Jordan.
Jordan and Israel are worried that the void left by Russia in the southwest will be quickly filled by Iran. There is also another concern for the Israelis which are the “smart” weapons coming from Iran to Lebanon via Syria’s borders. This makes the Hezbollah arsenal lethal to Israel, which cannot afford to have any of its critical infrastructure hit.
The US refusal to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the terrorist list will probably spur Iran to increase its aggressiveness as an act of retaliation. Hence, today, in the Syrian arena the main concern is reining in Iran and protecting the borders of Jordan and Israel, and the US is not in the mood to confront Turkey.
Turkey can use this to get better terms with the US. The Biden administration’s aim was a frozen conflict in Syria. The conflict seemed too complicated to be solved. The US aim was for the Turks to stay where they are in the northwest, to continue supporting the YPG while making sure the Al-Hol camp is under control, and add to that maintaining the security of the borders of Jordan and Israel.
In short, the US policy was keeping the lid on the conflict. However, this policy seems unsustainable as we are heading to a new disruption. The disruption could be another large-scale operation in the northeast or it could be an operation in the southwest. It is difficult to predict how exactly events will play out, but chances are we are heading to new events that will push the US to make some serious decisions on Syria. One thing is for sure: The status quo in Syria is about to be disrupted.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.