Turkey has opened up a new front in Syria, which could further prolong and complicate the war, adding to the losses suffered by both Russia and Iran.
Turkish army tanks move toward the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 25. Photo: AP
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On Aug. 24, the forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) totaling up to 1,500 men, with active support from Turkish artillery, armored vehicles, and special units, as well as Turkish and American aviation, crossed the Syrian border and entered the city of Jarabulus, with a population of 25,000.
After a short fight in the center, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) surrendered the city. The FSA and the Turkish army continued their advance to the south and to the west capturing up to 60 square kilometers (37 square miles) of territory and coming into contact with the Kurdish forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The official reason for the intervention, as stated by the Turkish authorities, was the need to struggle against ISIS terrorism and Kurdish separatism, and to secure a unified Syria. However, it is not clear how Ankara's military operation can contribute to bolstering the territorial integrity of the country. After all the intervention is illegitimate in terms of international law. But the Turkish troops have certainly succeeded. In the history of the Syrian civil war, it is the first example of winning such a large territory in one day.
The Turkish advance with limited forces and without any serious casualties (there have been reports of 48 fatalities on the ISIS side and only three fatalities on the side of the FSA forces that launched the offensive) could mean that this was "an orchestrated victory.” It is not ruled out that Turkish intelligence used its long-established ties with ISIS to propose that they leave the city without a fight.
In comparison, in the summer of 2016, the Kurdish SDF troops, with active support from American aviation, stormed for 73 days the city of Manbij, which is 25 kilometers from Jarabulus and only three times larger (75,000). The offensive forces were nearly 10,000 strong, with a considerable part being Western professional mercenaries. For a few months in 2014–2015, the small Kurdish border city of Kobanî resisted all siege attempts, never to be captured by the ISIS terrorists.
Interestingly, the U.S. has officially supported the Turkish invasion. Amidst the operation, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden made a state visit to Turkey. He urged the Kurdish SDF forces to give way to the Turkish offensive and withdraw their troops beyond the Euphrates river. Such a position from Washington, which has completely supported the Syrian Kurds since March, led to a negative reaction from their official representatives.
They stated that, unlike the Turks, they were Syrians, in their own land, and were not going to withdraw their troops. Because of that, an armed conflict between the advancing forces of the FSA and the Turks on the one side and the SDF on the other is now quite likely.
America’s support of the Turkish invasion indicates that the positions of Washington and Ankara on Syria have been reconciled. It is possible that Turkey has used the improvement of relations between Moscow and Tehran to apply influence on the American military and diplomats. For fear of a possible shift of Ankara’s foreign policy vector to the east, Washington chose to curb the ambitions of its allies, the Syrian Kurds, and supported the Turkish initiative to create a pro-Turkey enclave in Syria.
The emergence of a new stakeholder in the Syrian conflict poses no threat to Washington. On the contrary, this will enhance greatly the role of the U.S as mediator in negotiations between its allies, to which both conflicting parties belong. This will result in the prolongation of the conflict, and consequently, considerable losses, material and image-related, for Russia and Iran.
Russia’s reaction was reflected in a statement by the country's Foreign Ministry, which expressed its “concern about the events on the Syrian-Turkish border.” As the Russian foreign ministry sees it, “Primarily alarming is the possibility of further escalation of the situation in the conflict zone, including, among other things, the possible collateral civilian casualties and exacerbation of the inter-ethnic tensions between the Kurds and the Arabs.”
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The Syrian government has also expressed its protest against the violation of Syria’s sovereignty. Both Moscow and Damascus are aware that Ankara’s policy will not be friendly towards them and will only add new problems to the conflict.
The three fronts of the war
The Turkish invasion of Syria creates three potential fronts, which exacerbate the situation in the region. The first is already there as armed clashes between the advancing FSA and the SDF Kurds have already taken place 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the south of Jarabulus. The Turks will not be able to force the Kurdish SDF troops out of Manbij, but the future Kurdish advance towards Afrin, the city in northern Syria, will be prevented.
Therefore, the Kurds will not be able to create a single space from Al-Qamishli, Syria's other northern city, to Afrin or implement the plan of establishing a de facto Kurdish state after the model of Iraq. Generally, that satisfies both Damascus and Moscow.
Another front may emerge in the case of an offensive by the Turkish army and FSA against ISIS westward, in the direction of Afrin, to unite with the pro-Turkish opposition groups in the area of Azaz, a city in northwestern Syria. As a result, sizeable territories from Jarabulus to Azaz will fall under the control of the Turks, and the idea of creating a “security zone” along the Syrian border will be implemented.
In that zone, it will be possible to easily train and supply groups of militants fighting against the Syrian army in the north of Syria. For Moscow and Damascus, it means an indefinite prolongation of the conflict, with a de facto division of Syria and a threat of a breakthrough of the Aleppo front from the north (with the Azaz corridor being reopened).
Besides, the offensive against ISIS may develop in the southeastern direction, towards northwestern Aleppo, one of Syria's largest cities. If the FSA forces are reinforced with Turkish troops and equipment, this may create a considerable threat to the Syrian army, which is blocking Aleppo from the east, and the Iranian volunteer groups in the area.
On the whole, the emergence of a new military stakeholder in the Syrian conflict exacerbates the problem to a significant degree. Considering Turkey’s position in the Syrian civil war, which has not changed in any substantial way since 2011, Ankara will be trying to gain a foothold on the ground before a new round of talks on the settlement in Syria. Moreover, it now appears that Turkey will attempt to coordinate its position more with Washington and Riyadh rather than with Moscow.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.