Middle East

Turkey’s gamble on Syria pays off, could be short-lived

Erdogan shaking hands with people in Istanbul on October 18, 2019. AFP/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE

ISTANBUL: A U.S.-brokered cease-fire to end the Turkish offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria is a victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but could be short-lived without an agreement with Damascus ally Russia, analysts say. After U.S. Vice President Mike Pence held talks with Erdogan Thursday, the NATO allies announced a five-day suspension of the Turkish operation and the withdrawal from border areas of a Syrian Kurdish militia viewed by Ankara as “terrorists.”

Erdogan won his key demands to sweep Kurdish fighters away and set up a “safe zone” that is 32-kilometrers wide but whose length is yet to be defined. The Turkish leader wants the area to extend eventually to 444 kilometers.

But whether the agreement holds depends on negotiations with Russia, which provides critical backing to Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

“Turkey looks like a short-term winner because of the fact that Ankara was able to break the YPG-U.S. ties,” said Soner Cagaptay, director for Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The U.S. move to arm Syria’s main Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has long drawn Turkey’s wrath as Ankara views it as a “terrorist” offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK, blacklisted as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies, has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

But for the U.S., YPG fighters formed the bulk of the ground force in the fight against Daesh (ISIS).

Turkish forces launched the operation on Oct. 9 after U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to give a green light, only backtracking after a global outcry.

In a choice between fighting Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies, the YPG agreed to allow Assad’s forces to deploy in areas that had been out of his control for several years.

Anthony Skinner, director at the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft, said the deal “commits the United States to disarm the YPG and disable their fortifications and fighting positions - a demand Turkey has been clamoring for for years now.”

“This is a win for President Erdogan. It confirms in writing the White House’s acceptance of the Turkish army’s control over territory in northeastern Syria,” he told AFP.

Under the agreement which Ankara rejects calling a cease-fire, Turkey will suspend the operation for five days and end the assault after the YPG withdraws.

“We got exactly what we wanted out of the meeting” with Pence, a senior Turkish official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Turkey’s military operation paid off. The terrorists will withdraw from the safe zone within 120 hours and Turkey will enforce the safe zone.”

Turkish media also hailed the agreement as a victory for Erdogan.

“We won both at the table and on the field,” the pro-government Sabah daily said.

Another Ankara-friendly newspaper, Yeni Safak, boasted of the “big victory” from the high-stake talks.

Analysts say this win could be short-lived despite offering some relief for Erdogan.

“The agreement will probably boost Erdogan’s public popularity, which had been falling before he launched the military operation on 9 Oct.,” Gareth Jenkins, analyst at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, said.

“But the boost is likely to be relatively short-lived. At some point, Turkey will have to halt its military operations without achieving the goals it has set for them,” he said.

Skinner warned the deal might not mark the end of the Turkish operation in Syria because the army would continue targeting Kurdish militants both in Iraq and Syria “so long as their fighters pose an ongoing threat to Turkey’s national security.”

The five-day pause overlaps with Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi next Tuesday.

Despite being on opposite ends of the Syrian conflict, Ankara and Moscow have been working together to find a political solution to the war. Moscow is one of the few remaining allies of Assad’s regime, while Ankara has backed rebels fighting for his ouster.

“The geographic extent of the Turkish operation is likely to be determined during the Erdogan’s meeting with Putin,” Ege Seckin, an analyst at IHS Markit, said.

“Putin will call the shots going forward,” Seckin added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2019, on page 5.

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