Given the situation created by Turkey’s intervention in Syria, Washington and Ankara’s fight against the Islamic State (IS) is taking a back seat, while the threat of Syria being divided into spheres of influence followed by a war of ‘all against all’ is coming to the fore.
There is now further proof that by its actions in Syria, Ankara has presented the United States with a fait accompli. Worse still, the invasion of Turkish tanks has created a real threat of full-scale internecine fighting between Turkish troops, armed groups of local Kurds, and opposition groups that make up the Free Syrian Army.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Turkish offensive in Syria caught the US off guard. The newspaper writes that the US spent a long time preparing a secret plan for a joint operation with Turkey, but Ankara seemingly surprised Washington by starting operations alone. The invasion of Turkish tanks in Syria may be regarded as a breakdown in cooperation between the US and Turkey at senior levels, believes The Wall Street Journal. As for the prior approval of the operation’s details, this did not happen to anywhere near the extent that both sides hurried to declare afterwards.
Officials in Washington told The Wall Street Journal that on 29 August, the US warned Turkey that it would not provide air support to Turkish forces pushing southward, deeper into Syrian territory, that the country would only be able to rely on US air support if Turkish troops moved westwards. At present, however, Turkish troops in Syria are predominantly advancing southwards, which is exacerbating the situation even more and creating the risk of fighting between Kurdish troops, Syrian opposition groups and Turkish armoured units.
The Turkish media claims that Ankara informed everyone whose interests would be affected about the start of the military operation known as ‘Euphrates Shield’. «All interested parties were informed», said the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Numan Kurtulmuş. «Damascus also had information regarding ‘Euphrates Shield’. It was informed by Russia».
Turkey’s official narrative regarding the aims of its operation in Syria is that the Turkish military has no plans to become a permanent power in the country. «We will not be part of this battle», stressed Numan Kurtulmuş. According to Kurtulmuş, the Turkish authorities want to rid the region of IS militants and prevent Syrian Kurds from creating a corridor that Ankara believes will divide Syria.
It seems that neither Damascus nor Moscow are entirely satisfied with these explanations, however.
The Syrian government has condemned the operation already underway and called it a violation of the country’s sovereignty, reasonably believing that any operations in the fight against terrorism within the borders of the state should be carried out with the agreement of Damascus. There was no such agreement. There are suspicions that Ankara is trying to replace IS with other terrorist groups it calls «rebel groups» in order to maintain its leverage on the situation not just on the Turkish-Syrian border, but with regard to the issue of Syria’s fate as a whole.
For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a telephone conversation with Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, expressed concern over the actions of Turkish armed forces and Ankara-led Syrian opposition groups. Russia believes that such actions could negatively impact the possibility of a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.
How far are the Turkish authorities willing to go in their desire to gain a foothold in Syria, even if it means a certain cooling of relations with the United States? The answer may reveal itself once Turkey’s plans regarding the city of Al-Bab, which is known as ‘the gate’ to Aleppo and towards which Turkish troops are currently advancing, become clearer. It is the same southward direction that the US warned Ankara about.
In the meantime, the Turkish media has a vague idea about what is actually happening in Syria during the ongoing Turkish offensive. «Who is fighting against whom in this new balance of power and why?» asks the Birgün newspaper. According to the newspaper, Ankara has moved away from its previous stance on the immediate overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad around which Turkey’s entire strategy was built (although Erdoğan’s government still intends to overthrow al-Assad at some point in the near future).
«Thanks to its foray into Jarabulus, Turkey has come a long way in achieving its dream of a ‘buffer zone’, which the country has been pushing for since the very beginning of the crisis», writes Birgün. «On the one hand, Turkey has been working with the US, the EU and NATO, and on the other it has been trying to get closer to the Russian-Tehran axis. The recent operation is a result of this ‘agreement.’ The ‘red line’ for Turkey is Kurds expanding their territory. From its policy of ‘We will pray in Damascus’, Turkey has changed its rhetoric to include ‘a transition phase with al-Assad’ or ‘the possibility of holding talks with the regime’. With its operation in Jarabulus, Turkey has returned to the stage».
At the same time, Birgün warns that after the operation in Jarabulus, the Kurdish front will become the main front for Turkish forces in Syria, and that considering the Kurdish movement’s international links, this could lead to a worsening of relations between Ankara and the United States, the European Union, and Russia.