In his address to the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu proposed that the US should send its own Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Northern Syria to support the «moderate opposition forces» fighting against the Islamic State (IS). «Two days ago [US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. [Joseph] Dunford was in Ankara to discuss all these technical issues. Yes, we proposed to the US to put their Special Forces on the ground to support the local moderate forces» he said.
According to the official, the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army will launch an operation to retake Raqqa – the unofficial IS capital – from the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group after it ousts militants from al-Bab. Mr. Cavusoglu also called on other partners from the US-led anti-IS international coalition to send their special forces for the planned ground offensive to retake Raqqa.
The address of the minister came after the Syrian government issued a statement calling on Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria. «Turkey should withdraw its troops from the territory of Syria», said Bashar al-Ja'afari, head of the Syrian government delegation at the peace talks in Astana on February 16. Indeed, US troops will have no legal ground for entering Syria without an arrangement with the Syrian government or endorsement by the UN.
The US has pledged support for Ankara’s fight against Kurds – both with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and to prevent Kurdish territorial expansion in northern Syria, Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik said in an interview after a meeting with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. According to the official, the US Defense Secretary told him, ‘Firstly, you deserve more support for the fight against the PKK, and we will give it. Secondly, we will support you more in the Euphrates Shield operation. And thirdly, it is not possible that the PYD will join cantons.’ The US-led coalition has provided some support to Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation via airstrikes, most recently in al-Bab.
Something is cooking up? With information from different sources pieced together to see the whole picture, no doubt is left – we are in for game changing changes to take place much sooner than expected. Here are the facts to confirm this conclusion.
Just a few days before the sensational statement, it had been reported that the US Defense Department might propose that the US send ground combat forces into northern Syria for the first time to speed up the fight against the IS. «It's possible that you may see conventional forces hit the ground in Syria for some period of time», one defense official told CNN. So far, US deployments to Syria have been limited to Special Forces and military advisers, never regular ground forces.
«It's possible that you may see conventional forces hit the ground in Syria for some period of time», said a defense official. The CNN report says that another goal of a US ground «presence would be to help reassure Turkey that Kurdish forces are not posing a threat to Ankara's interests».
It makes spring to mind that Michael Flynn, former US National Security Adviser, has supported the idea of deploying ground operations in Syria. «The sad fact is that we have to put troops on the ground. We won't succeed against this enemy with air strikes alone» he told Der Spiegel in 2015. He has the president’s ear on Syria.
President Donald Trump, who has ordered his defense secretary to come up with a proposal to combat the IS before the end of February.
The recent statements follow the phone conversation between the US and Turkish presidents on February 7, when the two leaders discussed the fight against the IS, including the operation to retake Raqqa. Right after the phone call, CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited Ankara (February 9).
One thing is certain – behind-the-scenes discussions are held on creating a kind of «safe zone» controlled jointly by the US and Turkey. There is a great possibility that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies may contribute financially or militarily as a new military alliance is being formed in the Middle East. Will this quasi-state be a real multi-national entity? Hardly so. If a «safe area» is established to protect Syria’s Turkmen (Turkomans) and Sunni Arabs only, then it will mean the division of the country – something all actors involved pledged to avoid. And how could it contribute to the solution of the Syria’s problems? What about Syria, Russia, Iran, the Kurds and other actors?
The implementation of the idea would require a large number of troops. Without approval by UN Security Council, there will be few contributors to shoulder the heavy burden. Hundreds of aircraft will have to be deployed in addition to the ones already in the region to support the mission. Are the US and Turkey ready to shoulder the burden?
The most worrisome aspect of the matter is that a kind of «safe zone» or «safe area» is to be created not by an international coalition with major actors involved in the conflict represented, but by the two powers in cahoots with the Persian Gulf states and, perhaps, NATO. If the Syrian government does not give its consent, the move will violate Syrian sovereignty, lessening chances for conflict resolution.
With the Astana process making gains, it is important to give it a chance and avoid actions that could whip up tensions. As the talks on Syria were launched in the capital of Kazakhstan, the three organizers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – affirmed their commitment «to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as a multiethnic, multireligious, nonsectarian and democratic state». The three expressed their conviction «that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it can only be solved through a political process». The role of UN in the crisis management was emphasized.
There should be no forgone decisions taken by the two NATO allies presented to other actors as a fait accompli. Such a scenario will pour more oil to the fire to make all the peace efforts applied so far go down the drain.
The Astana initiative was just the start of a long and extremely complex process. It is important to give it a chance. Moves taken outside the process will hinder the effort or just nip the entire endeavor in the bud. The only way to go is to make the plan a part of the agenda discussed internationally with decisions to be submitted to the United Nations for approval or discussed within the framework of the Astana process to achieve the consent of the Syrian government, if it finds it acceptable. Those who advocate the plan to create a quasi-state in the northern part of Syria should think twice before they jump.