Summary: The military balance shifts against Turkey and its Arab allies. The YPG strikes a deal with al-Assad. Russia backs Syria over Turkey.
We are again grateful for the article below to David Barchard, a writer on Turkish history and politics.
The agreement reached on Thursday evening in Ankara between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the US Vice-President Mike Pence has probably achieved, at least for the time being, its officially stated objective. But that probably has more to do with US politics than with where events are actually going in north eastern Syria.
Congressional moves to introduce new sanctions against Turkey have received a setback and Turkish fears that President Trump might ‘obliterate’ their country’s economy will have lifted but not entirely disappeared. Democrats in Congress are not satisfied. Chris van Hollen, the Democrat Senator for Maryland says he will continue to press for sanctions. Brett McGurk, who created the US alliance with the Syrian Kurds against ISIS, dismisses the deal as ‘unimplementable.’
If the terms are actually implemented, they would represent a major victory for Ankara, giving it a 32-km strip of Syrian territory, occupied and administered by its armed forces. The YPG (Kurdish Peoples Protection Units, the Marxist militia regarded by the Turks as terrorists and by the Americans as vital allies in the defeat of ISIS) would disarm and fall back, and allowing Turkey to create, and administer, the ‘Safe Zone’ and incidentally throwing into jeopardy the situation in the string of settlements along the border. For a start its seems to be outdated in terms of the situation in northern Syria—where only a tiny handful of US personnel remain..
Vice-President Pence said that ‘Syrian Forces’ – he did not specify exactly who he meant by this – had agreed to do all this. Perhaps the individual remnants of the Syrian Defence Force have agreed, but it is most unlikely that the YPG will comply. Indeed it may no longer even exist in formal terms.
Four days ago, in a development which the Western press has largely ignored, the YPG signed a five point agreement with President al-Assad to disband and return to rule from Damascus (which it had never formally renounced). This transforms the situation on the ground – and reveals the fragility of Turkey’s partnership with Russia. The deal could not have happened without a sharp tilt in Russian policy away from partnership with Turkey towards supporting the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which has always been its main ally – and client in Syria.
There has been little public response to this in Turkey, indeed the YPG/Syrian government deal has only been reported at length in the opposition press. But it would be surprising, if the Turk military do not feel badly let down by their Russian friends. Without Russian acquiescence, Turkey would never have sent forces into Syria for Operation Spring of Peace. Russia used its veto, along with the USA, to prevent a UN Security Council resolution against the Turkish operation in Syria. Now Russia has made it quite clear that its main interest is in preserving the integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic—and preventing a humanitarian disaster which might further destabilize it.
Under the terms being published from Damascus, the YPG and its weaponry are now being absorbed into the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) as the Syrian Fifth Army. This strikes directly at Ankara’s claim to be pursuing terrorists rather than engaged in a war with terrorist criminals. Furthermore, the agreement says explicitly that the SAA would now be responsible for the entire border security of the formerly Kurdish autonomous regions. The Kurdish identity however will be recognized in the Syrian constitution—another point unacceptable in Ankara.
The immediate consequences on the ground have been that the military balance has already shifted heavily against Turkey and its Arab allies. The town of Kobani (scene of the famous siege and battle with ISIS in the summer of 2015) is now held not by the YPG, but by Syrian Government troops and Russian Military police. So too is Manbij, the strategically crucial town where the Americans had their Syrian military command but have now been replaced by Russians. President Erdoğan continues to talk of advancing, but it is hard to see how that can possibly happen now without the Turkish Army and its Arab allies confronting Syrian – and Russian – forces.
The Pence-Erdoğan agreement on Thursday talked specifically about protecting Kobani and Turkey agreeing not to attack it. Were these stage whispers for the benefit of politicians in Washington signalling that there will no repetition of the horrors of the 2015 ISIS siege? With Russian and Syrian personnel already in Kobani a Turkish attack on the town looks improbable.
More generally despite whatever Pence and Erdoğan have agreed, it is also unlikely that we shall see creation of a Safe Zone, giving Turkey control of a slice – particularly a 32-km wide slice—of Syrian territory.
If the forces of Operation Spring of Peace were genuinely poised to advance, as they would have been without the Kurdish deal with Damascus, the whole area would indeed have fallen eventually, just as the PKK-held Syrian province of Afrin did in March last year, though only after a two month-long campaign. It is hard to detect any such advances since the YPG-Damascus agreement despite the strongly triumphalist tone of official media reporting in Istanbul and Ankara. Tel Abyad is in Turkish hands and Resulayn under siege and it is possible to make forays into the countryside around them, but there do not seem to be reports of advances.
A key question is what has happened at Qamishli, the seat of the Syrian Kurdish autonomous administration where there were reports of intense shelling during the initial few days of the conflict. But on Thursday, the Kurdish media were reporting that calm was returning and schools were reopening. It looks as if Qamishli is not going to fall to the Turkish army.
The Pence Erdoğan deal therefore seems to refer essentially to the situation in north eastern Syria as it was a fortnight ago, before Turkish options were boxed in by the Syrian-Kurdish deal.
Erdoğan however is keeping his options open. The most striking feature of the agreement however is that the ‘pause in fighting’ or ‘ceasefire’ (the latter term is rejected by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who says that there is only a ‘suspension’ of Turkish military operations) will continue for 120 hours i.e. five days This happens to be the exact number of days until President Erdoğan flies to Sochi at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin made two days ago. The invitation is a clear bid to mend fences after Russia brokered the deal between the Syrian government and the Kurds. It may well be bitter and stormy but it is unlikely that any ill feeling will be made public and what ever arrangements are made will be dressed up as victory. The Russians, not the Americans will determine the longer term situation surrounding Operation Spring of Peace and the future of north eastern Syria. There will probably not be a breakdown in Russian-Turkish relations, while a breach with the United States probably cannot be deferred for ever.