Yesterday’s column discussed how Kurdish gains in Syria had set Ankara and Damascus drifting toward reconciliation against a backdrop of devastation in the war-torn country. But how might the other players in the conflict react to Turkey’s shifting Syria policies? And, where does this leave the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria?
The reports of warming relations between Turkey and Syria came at a time when Damascus had made steps toward rapprochement with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). According to media reports, joint patrols by the Syrian army and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the backbone of which comprises the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – were initiated in the Kurdish populated areas of Syria after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began threatening to invade AANES-controlled areas in Northeast Syria as of May.
“We will soon take new steps to complete the project we started, to have secure territories of 30 km in depth along our southern borders,” Erdoğan said during a cabinet meeting on 23 May, triggering emergency measures in northern Syria.
The initial goal of the military operation, which the Turkish president wanted to carry out by targetting the Syrian city of Tel Rifat, was to create a 30-kilometer “safe zone” along the entire Syrian-Turkish border. That is, to complete the construction of a controlled “corridor” in northern Syria, a goal which Turkey has pursued during the operations “Euphrates Shield” (2016), “Olive Branch” (2018) and “Peace Spring” (2019).
Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s signals for another invasion in the Kurdish-controlled areas was quickly and strongly repudiated by all parties to the conflict – the UN, USA, EU, Russia, Iran, the Arab League – and prompted a new set of talks between Damascus and the Syrian Democratic Forces with Russian mediation in early July, the London-based, Saudi monarchy-linked English language daily Asharq al-Awsat reported.
Sources “closely following the talks between the SDF and the Damascus” had stated that the talks focused on the “issues of the use and hoisting of the official flag of the Syrian state in all areas under SDF control; use of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s posters in public buildings; limitation of diplomatic representation abroad to legitimatise organs of the Syrian state; establishment of a ‘joint military operations room’ between the Damascus administration and the SDF to repel a possible Turkish operation.” the report said.
The Syrian source also said there was “a possibility of a preliminary agreement on the deployment of regime troops to all border areas with Turkey and the hoisting of the Syrian flag in the border areas controlled by the SDF.”
However, the source added, “no consensus has yet been reached on the SDF leaving the international relations entirely to the Damascus administration and the use of the signs of the Damascus administration in all local and central government buildings in the regions under the control of the SDF,” and issues such as oil, energy, agricultural production, and food resources would be dealt with in later negotiations.
In a follow up in late July, Asharq al-Awsat quoted a “Kurdish source who participated in the talks” as saying that a Kurdish delegation had participated in talks in Damascus, “yet Syrian government displayed no welcoming attitude for the Autonomous Administration. Russia urges for the continuation of the negotiations and the US on their part state no reservations for the talks.”
Regional and international developments clearly reflect that Erdoğan’s last attempt – or rather, his last reconnaissance operation to check the international sentiment around a possible Turkish land operation in northern Syria – has proved that Iran and Russia will side with Damascus. Meanwhile the US, EU and UN strongly reject Erdoğan’s invasion.
Apparently, the regional balance of forces, contrary to Ankara’s expectations, has considerably changed and the climate is not as favourable as it had been during the Trump era.
Russia is least willing to divert its focus from Ukraine to Syria, while Damascus has gained deeper control over its territory and has to reassume greater responsibility for the defence of all territories within Syria’s political borders and to display a more determined stance, especially in the face of military incursions from Turkey.
In terms of the international balance of forces, there remained no place for an increased Turkish military presence, an eventuality that would imply a return to war on a broader scale and could trigger unpredicted confrontations with global consequences given the already-disturbed balance due to the Ukraine war.
In the face of Erdoğan’s continued threats, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mikdad, in Moscow on 23 August had to bluntly reject the Turkish president’s demand for new military intervention, saying such an escalation of tensions in Syria was “unacceptable”.
Obviously, the strategic balance of forces in Syria has blocked Turkey’s plan to launch a massive ground operation. But it has not hindered Turkey’s tactical capabilities to inflict harm on the Autonomous Administration. Combing the so-called “security belt” with drone strikes and artillery shelling is part of Turkey’s tactical line for depopulating the Kurdish-inhabited areas to prevent self-rule from taking root across Rojava.
Strategic analysts have predicted from the early days of 2022 that Turkey in the new unfavorable balance of forces would not be able to deploy large-scale military forces in Syria, but would have resorted to its killer drone fleets and artillery attacks in order to “cleanse” the “security belt” of its original inhabitants.
Commenting on the new tactical situation for The New Arab (TNA), Nicholas Heras, Deputy Director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, noted that Turkey has followed a clear strategy of “using drone strikes to whittle away at PKK-connected leaders inside northeast Syria” since 2019.
“Turkey’s approach is based upon Ankara’s assessment that it can make it difficult for the PKK to establish a long-term base of operations in northeast Syria,” he told TNA. “The Turkish strategy is tolerated by the US and Russia because it is a way to weaken Ankara’s argument that it must use a larger military invasion of northeast Syria to achieve its goals against the PKK.”
“Ankara is choosing this drone campaign as its best option until it can somehow convince Russia to allow it to carry out an invasion.”
“There is not much that the SDF leadership can do about these drone strikes without American and Russian pressure to stop them,” Heras added. “Neither Washington nor Moscow are inclined to intervene against Turkey’s drone strike campaign against the SDF in northeast Syria because this is a type of pressure release for Ankara.”
Ryan Bohl, another Middle East and North Africa analyst at the Risk Assistance Network & Exchange, also told TNA that the drone campaign was “not causing the same kind of international outrage that the last major Turkish invasion in October 2019 did” since it is effectively covert, from a diplomatic and media standpoint.
“It’s probable that the Russians have also greenlit this campaign, given how they control much of Syria’s airspace, as an attempt to avoid another Turkish invasion of more Syrian territory,” he said.
Erdoğan and Turkey’s military establishment have, albeit unwillingly, halted the massive preparations for an invasion, as their long term strategy of denying territorial control for any Kurdish administration in Syria has pushed Damascus and Rojava toward a closer tactical alliance.
However, Turkey’s tactical retreat and Syria’s tactical advance is still far from causing positive strategic consequences for the stability of AANES. On the contrary, the path which Putin and Lavrov recommended to Ankara, despite preventing Turkey from a deadly land operation, still leads to an equally unproductive climate for Syria’s recognition of the Kurds’ right to self-determination, and therefore the legitimacy of the Autonomous Administration.
The presumed talks between the two countries’ intelligence organisations, unless conditioned by universal rights and liberties for all citizens of Turkey and Syria, would inevitably converge on common concerns of “combating terrorism”, a euphemism for joining forces to reciprocally crack down on each other’s so-called terrorists within their own realm.
Putin’s advice to Erdoğan to cooperate with Damascus implies that Kurdish self-rule in Syria can be dissolved within a stronger Syrian nation-state under Syrian national security doctrines, and Ankara on its part should respond by denying freedom of operation to the Free Syrian Army from bases in Turkey.
Given his lack of options, Erdoğan may pretend to swallow Putin’s bait. Nevertheless, Putin’s strategy bluntly underestimates the vigilance, the Kurdish people’s historical consciousness of the right to self-determination and war-hardened capacity to survive a prolonged struggle.
If Putin’s “wisdom” were of any good in resolving national problems, it should have already guided the Kremlin to pick a “wiser” option to handle its issues with Ukraine than occupying the country and leading Russia to the brink of a nuclear confrontation.
The history of the dissolution of the Soviet Union testifies the validity of Lenin’s principle that utmost respect for the right of nations to self-determination – the organic expression of a voluntary unity of peoples – is the indispensable precondition of bringing about a free union of peoples under a common state. The recognition of the right to secede is the only guarantee for a voluntary union of nations. This is what the Kurds seek through the paradigm of “Confederalism”, a genius reformulation of the principle of the “right of nations to self-determination” vis-a-vis the status quo ante of four-part-Kurdistan.
Ertuğrul Kürkçü is the current Honorary President of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Honorary Associate of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). He spent 14 years as a prisoner between 1972-1986 for his political activism in Turkey. He is also member of Progressive International Council.