Can Erdogan Consolidate Success in Northern Syria After Meeting with Putin?

The ceasefire agreement announced after the meeting between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on 17 October 2019 is a clear diplomatic success for the latter. Whether it is indeed a breakthrough that will give Turkey all it aims for remains an open question. Ankara has, for now, averted a new round of sanctions President Donald Trump had threatened to impose in light of strong bipartisan blowback against his abrupt decision to give Turkey a perceived green light for its incursion into north eastern Syria, and to throw the U.S.’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurdish YPG, under the bus. The agreement also appears to imply U.S. acceptance of some version of Turkey’s demand to control a “safe zone” of some 30 kilometers south of the border with its own troops, and to end any presence of Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara, the U.S. and the EU consider a terrorist organization. 

For the U.S., the ceasefire appears to offer little more than damage control: Washington’s sudden reversal concerning its presence in north east Syria, the third within 18 months, caused consternation among its European partners, who had committed to stabilize the area. In particular, the threat that thousands of ISIS fighters currently held by the SDF (of which the YPG is the core component) might escape in the chaos created by the Turkish offensive has caused grave concern. Even many of Trump’s close political allies in Washington are concerned that his decision to abandon a loyal partner such as the YPG, and to withdraw troops under fire, will permanently damage the credibility of future U.S. commitments.

The US Is Too Late to Push Turkey and the Syrian Kurds to an Agreement
Guney Yildiz
Abandoned by the US abruptly, the Kurds will lose their autonomy and will have to work with Russia and the regime to at least retain their land and to get protection from Turkey. Iran, on the other hand, also has leverage on the broader Kurdish movement, primarily through their influence over Iraq.
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Crucially, the Erdogan-Pence agreement does not specify the exact geographical extent of the so-called “safe zone” that Turkey is claiming. SDF commander Mazloum Kobane has specified that his acceptance of the ceasefire’s terms is restricted to the area of the current Turkish incursion, a stretch of some 110 km along the Turkish-Syrian border between the towns of Tell Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn. Turkey, on the other hand, has on numerous occasions signaled that it is seeking a safe zone along the whole approximately 440 km of the border that are now controlled by the SDF on the Syrian side, and that it plans to resettle a substantial number from among the roughly 3.5 million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting in these areas. Such plans are entirely unacceptable to the SDF leadership, which has warned against what it considers Turkish plans for “ethnic cleansing”, and will almost certainly resist attempts by Turkish troops or the Turkish-affiliated “Syrian National Army”, a gamut of anti-Assad rebel groups, to expand the areas they currently control. Over the past days, both sides have accused each other of violating the terms of the ceasefire.

Given the huge gap between the two sides in the interpretation of the agreement, in particular concerning its geographical scope, the most likely scenario appears to be that after the 120 hours stipulated for the YPG’s withdrawal from the “safe zone”, the latter will announce that it has fulfilled the terms and that Turkish obstruction is to blame for any shortcomings, while Ankara will accuse what it calls “terrorist groups” of non-compliance. Whether Turkey will resume its military operations to crush the YPG and expand the area it controls may ultimately depend on the position of Russia. Erdogan is expected to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 22 October, just when the deadline for a YPG withdrawal expires. Moscow has supported and reportedly midwifed an agreement between the SDF and the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad that provided for Syrian troops to deploy to the border area and support the SDF in repelling the Turkish invasion. Erdogan has signaled that he would be fine with regime control over border areas per se, but so far, the presence of Syrian troops is more symbolic than real, and unlikely to convince Ankara that Damascus is back to take charge, secure the border, and end the de-facto rule of PKK-affiliated groups over the area. However, Erdogan can ill afford to ignore Russia’s preferences, not least because he needs Russian cooperation in the Idlib area further west.
US-Turkey Deal on Northern Syria Limits Assad’s Success
Kirill Semyonov
Although Damascus and Moscow remain the main beneficiaries of Operation Peace Spring and the American withdrawal from Northern Syria, the benefits of the Assad administration following the conclusion of the US-Turkish deal are not so obvious. The SDF is likely to enjoy US support for some time and retain some independence.
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