Column: Turkey’s Options in Syria after Al-Bab

   By: Dr. Said al-Haj*                            

The Chief of Staff of the Turkish Army announced on February 24 – together with the Free Syrian Army – their full control of the strategic Syrian city of Al-Bab six months after the start of Operation Euphrates Shield.

This announcement comes at a sensitive time; prior to the US President Donald Trump’s announcement of his country’s plan for Al-Raqqa battle, and coinciding with the Geneva negotiations 4 – which opens the door to questions about the coming steps from various parties, not only Turkey.

Chess game

Turkey started Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24, 2016. During the early days  of the operation, the first and second phases were fulfilled by taking control of the cities of Jarablos and Al-Rai. But the third phase related to Al-Bab came late both in its start and end for several reasons, most notably the fact that it is distant from the Turkish border, its large population, the various field and logistic challenges, and finally ISIS’s desperate defense of the city.

The Turkish control over Al-Bab soon drew the attention to both Manbij and Al-Raqqa, which led to rapid field movements on both tracks. The regime’s forces near Al-Bab immediately moved to cut the road of Euphrates Shield forces south toward Al-Raqqa, and other Assad forces advanced toward Manbij.

This means that Turkey’s road – together with thr Free Syrian Army – toward Al-Raqqa would be through two scenarios:

1- Compatibility with the Syrian regime (via Russia)

2- Or confronting it, which also means that the regime may reach Manbij before Turkey, complicating its calculations to a large extent.

However, the problem does not stop at the field developments, but it goes beyond that to their related political positions. The access of Ankara to Al-Bab suggests a decline in its urgent need for the Russian cover, and an increased interest in coordination with Washington regarding the next steps, especially toward Manbij and Al-Raqqa, where the latter has the last word, not Moscow.

Therefore, Trump’s phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Turkish positive tone toward the US administration as well as the need to cooperate with the Americans in Syria, prompted Moscow to “bomb by mistake” the Turkish troops near Al-Bab. In addition, it is difficult to assume that the Al-Assad regime’s recent field move was done without coordination with Moscow.

For its part, Turkey has received President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, to coordinate positions and discuss bilateral relations as well as “the fight against terrorism.” Barzani has recently become closer to the alliance and coordination with Ankara than with other Kurdish factions, or with the central government in Baghdad. Therefore, such a meeting – at this timing – casts a shadow on the ongoing battle of Mosul and the anticipated battle in Al-Raqqa.

In detail, Turkey has talked with Barzani about how to secure the arrival of thousands of “Peshmerga Rogge Ava” fighters – Kurdish groups which were trained with the support of both parties – to the north of Syria. However, this step is still opposed by the US for fear of the Peshmerga’s possible military confrontation with the forces of the Democratic Union Party.

The United States, for its part – despite confirming the important role of Turkey in Syria and in Al-Raqqa battle in particular – has sent armored vehicles and heavy military equipment to the forces of the Syrian Democratic Union Party after Trump’s access to the White House, which gives negative signals to Ankara.

It also appears that the matter has recently developed into a quasi- American/Russian coordination in the face of the Turkish plans, where the “junta” in Manbij has announced handing several villages in its countryside over to the Syrian regime.

Between Manbij and Al-Raqqa

Turkey’s priority in Syria remains to prevent the establishment of a political entity for the armed Kurdish factions in the north of the country due to their relationship with the PKK members and the expected negative impact of this on the internal Kurdish issue.

Therefore, Turkey’s control over the city of Al-Bab was a blow to the Kurdish political project in northern Syria by preventing territorial contiguity between the cantons controlled by those factions. Also in this context, we can understand the strategic importance of the city of Manbij for Turkey.

The forces of the Democratic Union Party – mostly composed of the Kurds – were supposed to withdraw from the city to the east of the Euphrates after its liberation from ISIS (Daesh) according to the US guarantees to Turkey, but that did not happen.

Moreover, the US statements moved from trying to reassure Turkey to warning it, where Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) expressed fears that Turkey’s intervention in Manbij may obstruct the coalition’s work against ISIS.

In contrast, the remarks of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu – that his country will bomb the YPG (Kurdish) forces if they do not withdraw from Manbij – indicates a possible Turkish move in the near future towards the city, in attempt to feel the pulse of Washington and its possible reaction. (Cavusoglu also said Turkey and the U.S. “must not face off against each other because of Turkey’s fight against other terrorist groups [apart from ISIS],” the main focus of the Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria.) Cavusoglu’s remarks may also indicate that Ankara has become desperate of the possibility of its participation in Al-Raqqa battle.

In this sense, and in light of Washington’s insistence on the participation of the PYD/YPG forces in the battle of Al-Raqqa; the non-participation of Turkey will push it towards Manbij either to expel the Kurdish factions out of the city, or to put more pressure on Washington, or to achieve the two goals together, which may expose Turkey’s relations with the U.S. to a new test under the Trump Administration.

The liberation of Al-Raqqa is the most important battle strategically, as it is ISIS’s main stronghold in Syria, particularly in coincidence with the progress in the battle of Mosul, a stronghold of the terrorist organization in Iraq. In fact, because the military outcome is a foregone conclusion, regardless of the long time required, the political calculations seem more important than the field balances.

Because the simplified logic says that the people involved in this fight will have a role in shaping the future of Syria, the Kurdish factions strongly want to participate.

Turkey shows its desire to participate in the liberation of Al-Raqqa to combat ISIS and to block the participation of the Kurdish factions, trying to provide alternatives for the latter to Washington through the Free Syrian Army, which has been tested in the Euphrates Shield and proven to be effective, in addition to the “Peshmerga Rogge Ava” troops that could break the monopoly of the Kurds representation claimed by the Democratic Union Party and the military formations emanating from it.

Ankara holds various points of strength such as the Incirlik military air base, its common borders with Syria, its influence the opposition, and its military presence on the Syrian territories, which makes the possibility of ignoring it by the United States difficult. Therefore, the US plans – that are not stated clearly up to now – to involve Turkey and the Kurdish factions together in the battle of Al-Raqqa.

The Kurds and the political solution

Under Washington’s insistence on the participation of the Kurdish factions and Turkey’s keenness on blocking their participation, there is a compromise that ensures the participation of the two parties. Though such compromise does not seem possible today, yet they may resort to it later if suitable ground was provided.

The Al-Raqqa battle looks very similar to the battle of Mosul in many ways, most notably the city’s importance, being ISIS stronghold, the large population, the logistical difficulties, the nature of the region, the difficulty of the battle and its historical dimension, and the need for the participation of various parties despite their conflicting goals and political orientations.

The expected solution is similar to the Mosul scenario, where Washington leads the operations and coordinates between the various parties. The Kurdish factions (the same as the Popular Mobilization in the case of Mosul) are not expected to be allowed to enter the heart of the city, and Turkey may not be given a key role in the liberation of the Al-Raqqa.

But, in order that Ankara could accept a solution like and stay out of the equation altogether, the Democratic Union Party is supposed to provide proof for its good intentions to reassure Turkey. The Democratic Union Party’s federal and/or separatist project in Syria is not only a threat to Turkey, but it threatens the future of Syria as well, especially that it comes unilaterally and by force of arms, before reaching a political solution through negotiations with other parties.

If PYD abandoned the imposition of this project and declared its satisfaction with the results of the negotiating track and across a solution to preserve the unity of the Syrian land, it would possibly reach compromises with Ankara, as it is only interested in blocking the Kurdish project. In fact, Turkey does not have an inherent hostility with the Kurds as an essential component in Syria and the region, as evidenced by its openness to many other Kurdish parties.

Ankara is aware of the difficulty of excluding the Kurdish factions of a political solution in Syria like other parties, especially in light of the support provided to these factions from Washington and Moscow alike, which do not consider the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm People’s Protection Units (YPG) as terrorist organizations as Ankara does.

Therefore, Ankara is trying as much as possible to reduce the party’s influence and weaken its future role through:

1- refuting the narrative of its representation of the Kurds (through its support of the Kurdish National Council and the Peshmerga Rogge Ava),

2- breaking its monopoly of the status of the local player in the face of ISIS (through its cooperation with the Free Syrian Army),

3- preventing the territorial contiguity between its cantons,

4- and forcing it out of the predominantly Arab areas such as Manbij.

Thus, with the advent of the sixth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, Syria has turned into an unclear arena of international and regional conflict with stiff competition between the various parties and their interests. It is still difficult to know for sure how things might end up, especially in light of the ambiguity of the US position so far, and also due to the continuing causes of the revolution – which is the most important – including oppression, murder, corruption and others. In fact, the causes of revolution have been further exacerbated through the accumulation of grievances and feuds, the high walls of blood, hatred, and line-ups.


* Dr. Said al-Haj is a Palestinian doctor, writer, and a researcher in the Turkish issues.

(Published in the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies on March 9, 2017, and translated for MEO)