In trying to stop Kurdish militias, Turkey may abandon a Syria plan years in the making
If Cavusoglu’s words become flesh, it would represent a considerable change, abandoning one group of allies in order to defeat another group of militants.
Although the war in Syria has fallen away from the front pages, the conflict continues to simmer. So too does the endless diplomacy as the myriad groups and countries involved seek to extract deals that prioritise their national goals. In the midst of so much shifting sand, it is little wonder that rumours and comments spread like wildfire among Syrian communities and that those rumours provoke real-world responses.
Such was the response last week to the admission by Turkey’s foreign minister that he had met Syria’s foreign minister last year, the first known meeting between the two sides since the war in Syria began more than a decade ago.
But Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking at a conference in Ankara, also said something else rather intriguing. He said: “We need to somehow come to terms with the opposition and the regime in Syria … There must be a strong administration in Syria … that can dominate every corner of its lands.”
As with so much that has happened in the tussles between Syria and outside powers over the past ten years, much of the policy changes have first been announced in hints. This could be one such change, or it could be nothing, a mere comment. Unsurprisingly, though, Syrians inside the country and in Turkey were not willing to wait and see. His comments sparked immediate protests in the parts of northern Syria still controlled by Turkey, to where the majority of Syrian rebels has relocated, as the rest of the country has fallen back under regime control.
There is an undeniable logic to Turkey placing itself as the mediator between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Yet doing so also places the country in the invidious position of having to abandon its Syrian allies and undermines a plan that Ankara has spent years and tens of millions of dollars to create. If Cavusoglu’s words become flesh, it would represent a considerable change, abandoning one group of allies in order to defeat another group of militants.
Cavusoglu’s comments are the first hint that Turkey may abandon its years-long plan to relocate Syrian refugees to the Syrian side of the border, but protected by Turkish soldiers. Coming so soon after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi met in Tehran, as part of the Astana process, it is little wonder it is being seen as a policy shift.
Since 2016, Turkey has secured three of these enclaves all along the Turkish-Syrian border. In these liminal spaces, Syrians who sought asylum in Turkey have been relocated, their children studying in Turkish-built schools, using the Turkish currency, administered by Turkish governors and overseen by Syrian soldiers paid for by the Turkish government.
These enclaves, while deeply controversial and a violation of Syria’s territorial sovereignty, were a workable solution for two of Turkey’s greatest challenges; how to remove millions of Syrian refugees from its soil and how to push back Kurdish militants from its border.
The Syrian refugee issue has become a domestic priority; popular anger in Turkey over the number of Syrian refugees has not abated. In fact, it could yet fuel sufficient anger that Erdogan may lose next year’s elections.
But if Turkey becomes the man-in-the-middle, mediating between the Assad regime and the opposition, many of the benefits of these enclaves fall apart. Indeed, even hinting that this may be an option, as Cavusoglu has, could make the whole endeavour unworkable.
Almost everyone who lives in the Turkish enclaves does not want to be subject to regime control again, fearful of imprisonment or worse. That is certainly true for the 50,000 Syrian rebels in the Syrian National Army, a group entirely funded by Turkey.
What those living in these enclaves fear more than anything is what might be called a Sinjar moment, waking up to find Turkish soldiers have left and the Syrian regime is back in charge, a reference to the Yazidi town in 2014, when Kurdish troops retreated overnight, leaving the inhabitants to ISIS militants, with devastating results.
Even the rumour that these areas may one day be abandoned to the regime would stop further refugees moving there and would almost certainly make the Syrian rebel soldiers prepare for that possibility.
The sole reason for the abandonment of the enclave plan is the perceived threat of a Kurdish homeland.
Turkey has fought a long-running insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Turkey and does not want allied Kurdish militias on its border. These Kurdish militias, with the support of the US, now control vast parts of Syria’s east and north-east, in areas where natural resources are concentrated. The last thing Ankara wants is for this area to become a de-facto state and Erdogan has made clear he is willing to use military force to stop it.
This potential and most likely ad-hoc alliance with the regime will have that goal in mind. But it will come with a cost. In terms of the Syrian regime’s hierarchy of desires, the desire to rid the eastern parts of Syria from American influence ranks higher than the small enclaves Turkey has created on its territory. However, if, and it remains a significant if, a deal between Ankara and Damascus resulted in the return of Kurdish-held territories, that would surely leave only the Turkish enclaves beyond regime control.
It is unimaginable that Damascus, having sought to reclaim territory in one area, would be content to leave other areas under Turkish control. Ankara must realise that would mean having to give up the enclaves and with them, the best plan it currently has to relocate millions of Syrian refugees. Solving one of Turkey’s greatest challenges will simply make another one ever more intractable.
Source: The Arab Weekly
By: Faisal Al Yafai
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Observatory.