Ankara’s Olive Branch to Damascus

How serious is Turkey’s threat to launch a military assault northeast of the Euphrates?

By Abdelbari Atwan

Turkish Foreign Minister Melut Cavusoglu surprised his audience and raised many questions when he announced on Sunday that his country might be prepared to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad if he were to be re-elected in an internationally-supervised democratic vote. Speaking at the Doha Forum, where he was a prominent participant, he declared: “there must be a transparent democratic process, and ultimately it is the Syrian people who will decide who will govern their country after the elections.”

Opinion is divided about this calculated statement and the fact that it was, apparently deliberately, made in Doha. Asad revealed two months ago that contacts were underway with the Qataris about restoring relations following their rapprochement with Hezbollah and establishment of a strategic alliance with Iran.

One view is that the Turkish government, which is poised to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria that may lead to clashes with US forces in the area, seeks to ease tensions with Damascus, at Russia’s bidding, as a prelude to reopening channels of dialogue and possibly restoring ties.

The other is that this is a mere manoeuvre on Turkey’s part, aimed at neutralising the Syrian authorities for the duration of the current crisis with the US. Whenever the Turks are at loggerheads with the Americans in Syria, holders of this view argue, they signal that they want to mend fences with Damascus, but once the crisis passes they resume their anti-Asad stance. That happened in August, when the Turkish prime minister said Ankara would countenance Asad remaining in power temporarily. That was viewed as a sign that a breakthrough in relations could be imminent. But shortly afterwards President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dashed any such hopes by launching a fierce diatribe against the Syrian president.

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Whatever the case, a growing ‘flirtation’ has been underway between Ankara and Damascus these days under Russian auspices. Turkey has retreated somewhat from its hard-line position as the Syrian state has regained strength and recovered most of the country’s territory, and as the weakness of the armed opposition has become apparent.

Indeed, both the Kurds and Turkey have been wooing the Syrian state. The leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which control about half of Syrian territory northeast of the Euphrates, appealed to Damascus to defend the area after Erdogan announced that a military offensive was imminent to rid it of ‘terorists’.

Erdogan sees the growing power of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone is the YPG, on Turkey’s southern border – with the backing of the US under the pretext of combating the Islamic State (IS) group — as a growing national security threat. He is also worried about Saudi and Emirati meddling in the area. Since Turkey sided with Qatar in its row with the two countries and sent 35,000 troops to Qatar to do defend it from any military attack by them, there have been reports of Saudi and Emirati operatives visiting the area and providing arms and money to local Sunni Arab tribes at the request of the US. This is seen as a prelude to establishing a Sunni ‘emirate’ or ‘sheikhdom’ that would also threaten Turkish security. Earlier this year, Saudi Minister of State Tamer al-Sabhan visited the area and met with SDF leaders, the US commander in the area and Arab tribal chiefs, amid reports that the Saudis would support the creation of separate Kurdish and Arab tribal entities there.

There have been three recent signs that Turkey’s threats to launch a military offensive are being taken seriously.

n First, the appeal by Kurdish political parties to Damascus to join forces to repel Turkish aggression and threats, which they described as a violation of international law aimed at impeding a political settlement in Syria and supporting terrorist groups.

n Second, the strongly-worded US warning to armed opposition groups affiliated to the Syrian National Coalition, the Free Syrian Army and other factions that US forces would confront them directly if they took part in any Turkish military operation east of the Euphrates.

n Third, the silence maintained by the Syrian, Russian and Iranian leaderships about this increasingly heated Turkish-American row. Does this amount to tacit support for a Turkish operation, given Moscow and Tehran’s good relations with Ankara? Or is it a calculated silence, relishing the prospect of a clash between the two former allies that led the military intervention in Syria over the past seven years and sponsored and supplied the armed opposition?

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We do not know whether the Turkish threats are serious or aimed at reaching a compromise deal with Washington, as happened when similar threats were made with regard to Manbaj and Afrin. And if they are indeed serious, are they being made in coordination with Russia, and accompanied by efforts to secure Damascus’ approval or at least its neutrality?

The Northeast Euphrates battlefront may be poised to become the most heated in the near future given the number of international, regional and local powers vying for control of the area, which contains 75% of Syria’s oil and gas reserves and rich agricultural lands which produce most of its grain as well as high-quality cotton.

The key point, however, is that whatever the outcome of this struggle, it will ultimately be to the benefit of the Syrian state. It has so far opted to watch from a distance and avoid being drawn into the fray. That, in our view, is the wisest and most rational thing to do.