Al Bab, Menbij and Their Aftermaths in Syria
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) left behind the critical Al Bab test in the Euphrates Shield Operation in coordination with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). After Al Bab was liberated from DAESH, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the new target was Menbij and soon announced that some villages belonging to Menbij were captured.
We have evaluated where the TSK-FSA cooperation has reached in the cross-border operation and the future prospects of the operation with Oytun Orhan, Middle East Expert in ORSAM (Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies).
Interview: Didem Şahsuvaroğlu
The Euphrates Shield Operation has been continuing since August 24, 2016. How much have we progressed for the last six and a half months in the Operation coordinated by TSK and FSA? How many of the operation targets have been reached in this period of time?
When the Euphrates Shield Operation was first launched, it intended to have control of an area which is to be about 100 km long and 40 km wide safe zone by the Turkish Army and FSA backed up by Turkey. When we look at the current situation, the said area in military sense has largely been conquered.
Beyond military goals, political targets are without any doubt the points in question as well… The elimination of threat of terror towards Turkey from the Syrian border is among these political targets of top priority. Before the Euphrates Shield Operation, DAESH had control over the borderland and attacked several Turkish border provinces. We also witnessed that the DAESH elements that penetrated into Turkey by using the advantage provided by this very border carried out acts of terrorism in big cities and border provinces. Therefore, it seems that the goal has been reached in terms of preventing this and pushing DAESH into further south, out of Turkey's range. In recent months, we see that there has been no DAESH attacks against Turkey.
In terms of another terrorist organization named YPG/PYD in the region, the Euphrates Shield was significant. If the Euphrates Shield had not been carried out, the YPG forces under US support would have seized Al Bab after Menbij and would have had control over a holistic region in northern Syria from the Iraqi border to Hatay. And this could have brought about the emergence of a state-like structure under the PKK control in the future. Immediately after YPG captured Menbij, Turkey gave the start signal for the Euphrates Shield and entered into the region between Afrin and Ayn Al Arab. At least, it prevented the convergence of these two regions.
Another aim of the operation is to prevent new refugee waves towards Turkey... Turkey currently hosts more than 3 million Syrians. New migration waves are likely to show up... Turkey is considering to create a de facto safe zone in Al Bab and meet possible migrations in this region. Besides, Turkey aims to prepare circumstances for the return of 3 million Syrians within her own borders, reduce the burden on her shoulders a little bit more and to prepare occasions for these people to return home. Thus, in this regard, the goal seems to be reached. We see the return of the Syrians originally from that region to the areas liberated from DAESH by Turkey has begun and these regions can be used as a buffer zone in the face of a possible flow of migration.
What is the importance of liberation of Al Bab from DAESH in terms of the course of the operation?
Looking at the map, we will see that Al Bab is one of the two largest settlements, along with Menbij, between Afrin and Ayn Al Arab. And Al Bab stands as the "bridgehead" in terms of reaching Afrin. For, if YPG seizes Al Bab, it will be able to have geographical link to Afrin in a very comfortable way.
In terms of DAESH, Al Bab is crucial as it is one of the most powerful settlements in Syria following Raqqa.
Therefore, Al Bab has undertaken a significant role in the fight against both DAESH and YPG due to its geographical location, size and structure of population. With the capture of this region, DAESH has turned into an organization confined into the east of Syria and has been completely removed from Aleppo. Moreover, the YPG dream to establish a holistic region in northern Syria has come to an end.
Two buffer zones have been formed in the wake of the cleaning of Al Bab from DAESH elements as the regime forces took control of the southern part of the region and the US forces settled in the west of Menbij. Would it be correct to claim that the capture of Al Bab has completely shut down the PYD corridor despite these buffer zones?
We are now faced with a situation in which a small region like Menbij got interfered by global forces and the most significant actors of the region. This constitutes one of the important obstacles before Turkey to move towards Menbij in the following days. When the Euphrates Shield Operation was launched, Al Bab was determined to constitute the southern border of the operation within the framework of the reconciliation between Turkey and Russia. However, it is clearly understood from the statements that there is no obstacles to orient the operation in the east-west direction. In fact, as soon as Turkey's Al Bab operation was over, the highest Turkish authority announced that Menbij would be the next target.
At this point, we have witnessed that the US has increased its military presence in Menbij and that Russian troops have entered into the given territory. Of course, this is a factor that will weaken Turkey's hand against YPG in the next stage. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım also expressed that it would not be quite rational to advance at this point without coordination and negotiations with regional and global actors in the following stages.
It is, of course, completely a chess game that we encounter here... Everyone makes a move, and Turkey has made a game-changing move with the Euphrates Shield Operation, which matters for the plans of both the US and YPG, and even of DAESH... And now steps are being taken for Turkey to pave the way for the expansion of this de facto safe zone into the regions controlled by YPG. The United States has provided protection to Menbij from the north. It has increased its military presence. This very action means that if you interfere with YPG, you will do it by taking me into account as well.
Likewise, the entry of Russia and the regime forces will again pose a serious obstacle before Turkey to face YPG. Nevertheless, it is not right to say that Turkey is left with no options. Talks continue at the highest level between Russia and Turkey. Mr President Erdogan and Putin came together. It is not hard to guess that the Menbij issue was also discussed. A bargaining process will take place between the parties. Both actors need each other. They could provide some openings to one another in different areas. Through these openings, Turkey may have an agreement with Russia over Menbij.
Apart from this, it can be said that the ground for an agreement with the US has not disappeared yet. The Raqqa operation is on the agenda. If Turkey and the US can take a step to move together in the Raqqa operation, we can say that the Menbij issue can be solved much more easily and that the US can give some concessions to Turkey over it.
The possible target of the operation following Menbij is Raqqa... What is the probability that the US would act together with TSK-FSA in Raqqa while Ankara stated that it would not carry out the operation all alone?
There is a possibility but it is quite low. In terms of the US, the primary priority in Syria is to fight against DAESH. However, in this struggle the US has identified YPG/PYG as a reliable local partner. CENTCOM (US Central Command), responsible unit for the operations of the US army in this region, carries out the Syrian policy. Right now, there is a change of leader in the US. While Trump is struggling with his own internal problems, CENTCOM has taken an initiative as a fundamental determiner and practitioner of the Syrian policy in the field. And it is very clearly seen that CENTCOM has a very strict stance on continuing the alliance with YPG and that the Raqqa operation is thought to be realized in coordination with YPG instead of Turkey.
However, ultimately, the White House will decide how to carry out the Raqqa operation. Turkey makes an effort to make this new administration act with herself. On the other hand, I think it is not possible for the US in any case to completely exclude YPG and to cooperate with Turkey for the Raqqa operation, and will try to persuade Turkey to join militarily the operation where YPG will be present as well, and endevaour to find a middle course between Turkey and YPG. Nevertheless, it is imperative to say that this is unacceptable for Turkey. For, it is not that possible for Turkey to be able to take part in the same operation with YPG that the Turkish Army regards as an extension of the PKK.
There are two other areas where we can operate outside Raqqa: Afrin and Sinjar... What are the consequences that the possibility of these regions’ involvement in the operation would bear?
When we say fighting against terrorism in Syria, we do not merely mention the Euphrates Shield region. If you look at the map right now, you would see that very large areas in northern Syria are still controlled by YPG. Afrin is the primary at this point. It is relatively isolated by the Euphrates Shield Operation, the Euphrates Shield forces have entered into the region between the given city and other regions controlled by YPG and it is surrounded by the Syrian dissidents... We are talking about a place which has a border with Turkey. Therefore, it is more open to an intervention by Turkey... If Turkey cannot cover a ground with the US and Russia about the operation, Afrin now seems to be an area where Turkey can act alone and fight against YPG.
In Sincar, the situation is more different... There are other factors coming into play. The first one is that Sinjar is relatively far from the Turkish border and it is not a region that we have chance to intervene directly. The second one is that the Yazidis live in this region. There has been an interest and sympathy for the Yazidis in the world public opinion, especially after the DAESH acts. Therefore, a possible Turkish intervention in here will be tried to be represented by the PKK as "the Turkish attack on the Yazidi people". However, we know that Turkey concerns about the Yazidi militia power YBŞ that acts with the PKK... Nonetheless, there is a tension between the PKK-affiliated forces here and the Peshmerge forces attached to the Kurdish Regional Government... Just a while ago, there were some clashes between the parties. The US continues to implement pressure on the PKK to withdraw from Sinjar. The PKK is a little weaker here... That is why instead of fighting directly against the PKK, Turkey will take a position to back up the Peshmerga forces which had been controlling this region before DAESH showed up to take the lead from the PKK.
Is Barzani's visit to Turkey in the recent days related to the issue?
Yes, it is probably related... First of all, it is the Sinjar issue... The second issue is the Raqqa operation, and I think the YPG regions in Syria came to forefront in the meeting with Barzani because Turkey is not against a Kurdish region in northern Syria but a PKK region, a terrorist corridor... Therefore, it is more acceptable for Turkey that the Kurdish actors rather than the PKK are efficient here. In this sense, there is an effort for the forces formed by the Syrian Kurds, known as "Rojava Peshmerga" and trained by Barzani, to enter into Syrian Kurdish territories. It can be said that Turkey will be able to approach it more warmly to balance the PKK. And regarding the Raqqa operation, the integration of these Rojava Peshmerga into the Raqqa operation may also be on the carpet.
Last week, President Erdogan met the Russian President Putin. There exists an alliance between the two countries, but how long will this alliance last?
Turkey and Russia are two countries that have succeeded in maintaining cooperation in various fields for years despite some issues upon which they could not agree. The breaking point was the jet crisis... We witnessed that relations were completely cut off following the jet crisis and the problems experienced in the security field also reflected in the fields of energy, trade and economy. The recent rapprochement has increasingly continued. We have witnessed that the two countries have developed an initiative on the Euphrates Shield and Syria. By the Astana talks, the regime and the opposition forces supported by Turkey were brought together. This process is still going on.
In Syria, we see that both countries need each other over the Syrian issue. It does not seem possible for Turkey to achieve success in her fight against YPG and DAESH here all alone. Likewise, Russia wants to put an end to the Syrian Civil War. She wants to protect her current achievements. She also has the idea that she can do it only with Turkey. Hence, the parties are in need of one another. This cooperation will continue to develop in the near future. However, the answer to whether it will deepen or not is in fact directly related to the response of the United States, the Trump administration, to Turkey regarding the Raqqa operation. If there exists no possibilities of cooperation and the US continues to cooperate with YPG, I think Turkey can cooperate more with the bloc led by Russia.
Is it possible at this point for these two great powers to cooperate with each other while we plan to act in cooperation with Russia against the US? If possible, what will be the consequences of this alliance for Turkey?
The biggest problem for Turkey regarding the alliance between these two great powers will be on the YPG regions. Turkey is in cooperation with Russia; nevertheless, we see that Russia's view of the YPG is not that much different from that of the United States. Therefore, if these two actors negotiate with one another, some steps can be taken especially in order to turn Syria into a federal structure, to legitimize the existence of YPG. In this respect, it is extremely risky...
On the other side, we see that these two countries, Russia and the US, have few issues on which they both agree in Syria except their fight against DAESH and the YPG issue. There is a sense of distrust between the Russian and American armies, which dates remarkably back. These two countries consider each other's spheres of influence as a development against themselves and are always in competition. Therefore, it would not be so possible to talk about a full settlement about Syria in general. On the contrary, it is possible to say that although Russia has positive thoughts about YPG, she does not regard it as a priority and that she can give some concessions over YPG in Syria in order to protect her own interests. Therefore, it is necessary to state that Russia has more opportunities to cooperate with Turkey than the USA.
All actors agree on the DAESH issue. However, as far as I understand, there is not many actors that agree with us over the YPG issue.
Unfortunately, there is also a consensus on the subject, but it is not in Turkish favor. J
Is it possible for us to fight against YPG in spite of this?
It is... There are a few reasons for this. First; It is the Turkish border... Turkey is a regional power, a medium-sized state... It has a remarkable military power... At the same time, as she has a border, she has the power to have economic and political impacts here. Above all, thanks to her being in the western alliance, a member of NATO having relations with big powers such as Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia ... it is possible for Turkey to influence these forces. When you put all these elements together, it is not that possible for YPG to establish an order here in spite of Turkey.
This should not mean that "Turkey can do whatever she wants here and she would eliminate YPG"... For, as already said, there is an alliance, especially led by the United States, before Turkey. And this alliance has now taken responsibility in the field. It is clear that the given situation poses a serious challenge to Turkey. However in any case, thinking about the factors I mentioned above I do not think that Turkey's means for fighting against YPG are over here. For example, as I have already stated, Russia has an opinion about YPG that would disturb Turkey, but it is quite possible that Russia can be persuaded about YPG by some offers by Turkey in different fields. The Euphrates Shied is an example at this point.
Likewise, it can also be seen in relation to the US. The relationship between the two countries is not limited only to Raqqa. Turkey and the United States collaborate in many fields at the strategic level. And with the Trump administration's coming to power, there is an expectation that he will take a step by taking into account not only the sensitivities of the US army, but also, at macro-level, the Turkey-US relations. And this may be a bad news for YPG.
What is the sphere of influence of Iran on the Syrian territory?
Today, it is possible to say that Iran controls the field in Syria... She has constituted a structure in Syria which is quite similar to Hashd al-sha’bi in Iraq and right now she controls the country by the means of these militia groups. There are some comments that Iran, much more than the Russian influence in most cases, has been carrying out military operations in the field, and she has even taken over the state institutions in Syria. I think all these bring about concerns in the US, Israel and even in Russia, and that is why from now on, I guess, she will be pointed as target in the following period.
What would be the fate of the Tomb of Suleyman Shah?
The place where the Tomb was located was basically a very strategic area. It was near the Euphrates River and located at a point where it would cut off the connection between Ayn Al Arab and Afrin. If Turkey had been able to clean Menbij from YPG in the course of the Euphrates Shield, it would have been possible for her to relocate her own territory identified by international treaties.
I think this option is still valid. And I even think that the Turkish government should set it as a goal for her army. Indeed, the transfer of the Tomb to its former location will be a very crucial military point as well as a legal basis in terms of Turkey's destroying threats against herself coming from northern Syria. However, this does not seem likely in the current circumstances. First of all, difficulties should be overcome over Menbij; this region needs to be cleared from YPG in coordination with the USA and Russia. Likewise, if the DAESH elements could be pushed further North and south, and if a permanent security could be provided here, the Tomb’s relocation may be the case.
This interview was held on 15 March 2017 with TRT Vision Magazine.