The situation in northern Syria is not developing the way Turkey desires. It may help, therefore, to try and put some facts into focus.
Northern Syria is of vital importance to Turkey, not so much because of the radical Islamists that operate there, but because of the YPG and broader Kurdish aspirations in the region.
Turkey considers the YPG to be a Kurdish terrorist group linked to the outlawed PKK, which the US and Russia do not accept. Meanwhile, the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the US but not by Russia. Ankara has promised to eliminate the YPG.
Turkey gained a military foothold in northern Syria – or was allowed to do so by the US and Russia for pragmatic reasons – through its Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations. It has not, however, been able to enlarge this foothold to push back the YPG because of opposition from Washington and Moscow.
Turkey also managed to gain a limited military presence in Idlib province under an accord with Russia. That, though, is turning into more of a curse than a blessing given recent developments there.
Ankara has been threatening to move onto the city of Manbij and lands east of the Euphrates River against the YPG. Both regions are held by the YPG with the support of the US military. Nevertheless, Turkey has failed to carry out these threats so far.
In the meantime Turkey floated the idea of an exclusively Turkish controlled buffer zone of 20-30 kilometers deep, which will be on the Syrian side the of long border with that country. Turkey also wants to resettle Syrian refugees in this zone.
This offer has been picked up by Washington, although not by Moscow, and the sides are continuing to negotiate over it. However, Turkey’s desire to see such a buffer zone may be turning against it.
Washington’s special Syria envoy James Jeffrey has been saying a lot about the subject recently. What we can glean from his remarks is that this buffer zone is not going to be on Ankara’s terms.
Put briefly the US is not keen on a zone that is controlled exclusively by Turkey. It wants to be the main controlling component, even if there is some Turkish participation in the zone.
Washington says the zone it proposes will contribute to Turkey’s security but the Turkish side believes its real intent is to protect the YPG against Turkey. It is no secret that there is far more sympathy for the YPG in Washington currently than for Turkey.
Ankara is aware that a US controlled zone will also give respite to the YPG in northern Syria, enabling the group to consolidate the gains it has secured there under US support and protection.
Despite its threats against the YPG Turkey has no way of preventing the Kurds from consolidating these gains. The only option it has is to go in militarily despite the risk of a standoff with the US military that could turn ugly.
Hotheads on the Turkish side are clamoring for this but it has not happened so far. It seems Ankara does not want to engage in adventurism despite the heated jargon it uses.
Ankara’s ultimate fear in northern Syria is the emergence of a northern Iraq type Kurdish entity. This appears unlikely, though, since the Assad regime would not allow it and Russia would not support it.
Ankara is aware, though, that as long as a political settlement remains elusive in Syria the YPG will stay in place in northern Syria and continue to consolidate its hold there under US protection.
On the other side of the coin Ankara and Moscow are also not on the same page regarding the YPG or the Syrian Kurds. Top Russian officials have said the YPG is not a terrorist organization. They have also declared that persons attached to this group can take part in the Syrian negotiations.
In the meantime Moscow is encouraging dialogue between the regime and the YPG and prompting them to arrive at a negotiated settlement over the future of the Syrian Kurds.
Russia is more concerned today about Idlib and the Jihadist groups that have overrun most of the province, than it is about the YPG. It even protects the YPG against Turkey in Tel Rifaat.
Moscow also complains openly that Turkey has failed to expel the Jihadists from Idlib, as it was supposed to under last September’s agreement between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.
Put in a nutshell, Russia’s policies is Syria will most likely leave Ankara ultimately facing a hostile Assad regime as well as a hostile Kurdish Syrian population that has been granted certain political rights in a final settlement.
Listening to Jeffrey it appears that Washington may also not be averse to a settlement that accepts Assad as a fact of life and guarantees political rights for the Syrian Kurds. Notably in this respect is the fact that Jeffrey has also been discouraging the Kurds from entertaining dreams of an independent Syrian Kurdistan.
What concerns Ankara, though, is that its “estranged strategic partner” and its “hopeful strategic partner” have effectively become guarantors of Kurdish rights in Syria, albeit to varying degrees.
Turkey will most likely have to watch from a distance what Washington and Moscow ultimately agrees on for the future of Syria. The US and Russia are already talking about this.
We may be far off yet from peace in Syria, but the writing is on the wall as to how this will come about in the end. It is only a matter of time. The diplomatic and military policies Ankara can come up with during this time, in order to turn the tide in northern Syria to its advantage remain unclear.