M K Bharakumar |
Five days after Turkey summoned the US charge d’affaires in Ankara to convey its concerns over the US’ continuing support for the Kurdish militia in Syria with weapons and training, President Recep Erdogan threatened on January 15 that it is resolute about thwarting the attempt by Washington to consolidate the emergence of a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria under American protection.
Erdogan said that Turkish military has completed its preparation to move against the Kurdish militia in their canton of Afrin, in northwestern Syria, and Manbij, in northern Syria. He added, “The operation may start any time. Operations into other regions will come after,” noting that the Turkish army was already hitting the Kurdish positions.
Erdogan said, “America has acknowledged it is in the process of creating a terror army on our border. What we have to do is nip this terror army in the bud.” On January 14, Turkish Foreign Ministry also issued a statement saying Turkey had reiterated on numerous occasions that it was “wrong and objectionable” to cooperate with the Syrian Kurdish militia.
“On the other hand, the establishment of the so-called ‘Syria Border Protection Force’ (by the US) was not consulted with Turkey, which is a member of the (US-led anti-terrorist) coalition,” the statement said. It was also unknown which coalition members approved this decision, the ministry said. “To attribute such a unilateral step to the whole coalition is an extremely wrong move that could harm the fight against Daesh,” it added.
On another plane, what emerges is that the US ploy to create misunderstanding between Moscow and Ankara by stage-managing the drone strike recently at the Russian bases in Syria from Idlib province close to the Turkish border has flopped. Erdogan telephoned President Vladimir Putin last week to talks things over and the latter since then openly endorsed the assessment by the Defence Ministry in Moscow that the drone technology used in the attack was far too sophisticated to be handled by terrorist groups without the support of an advanced country. In effect, Moscow hinted at an American conspiracy.
At a press conference in Moscow today, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also hit hard on the US’ gameplan in northern Syria. For the first time, he made the specific allegation that Washington is working on the “separation of a huge territory along the borders with Turkey and Iraq” from the rest of Syria. Analysts have estimated that the area works out to a quarter of Syrian territory. Lavrov hinted that Moscow, Tehran and Ankara are in consultation on the issue. As he put it, “We, like our Turkish and Iranian partners, like many others, I am sure, are expecting detailed explanations from the US.”
Meanwhile, Tehran has also voiced concern over the American (and Turkish) moves in northern Syria. The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani warned of the dangers posed to the regional states by the occupation of Syria. “Any political or military action to target a part of the Syrian territories which are under the terrorist groups’ control or occupation of the Syrian lands by foreign forces runs counter to people’s interests, is considered as a threat to the regional countries and doomed to failure,” Shamkhani warned.
However, a military confrontation between Turkey and the US is unlikely to happen. Erdogan is good at brinkmanship. Nonetheless, his future course of action will bear watch. The point is, Turkey also has its own agenda in northern Syria and may well use the presence of Kurdish militia forces along its border regions as pretext for staging new military operations in northern Syria. Equally, Turkey still has an ambivalent relationship with some of the extremist groups operating in Idlib.
All in all a complicated matrix is developing in northern Syria where Russia, Turkey and Iran have convergence as regards their opposition to the US attempt to bolster the Syrian Kurds’ control of vast territories in the region. But, having said that, Russia and Iran (and Syrian government) also disapprove of any independent Turkish military action in northern Syrian. On the other hand, they also harbor misgivings about Turkey’s continuing links with some terrorist groups present in Idlib (which also have had US backing.)
The Syrian government’s best hope – as indeed Russia and Iran’s – would lie in weaning away the mainstream Kurdish groups from the orbit of US influence to engage them constructively as participants in a peace process. But Turkey brands the Kurdish groups as terrorists and threatens to attack them. Damascus has repeatedly questioned the Turkish moves with regard to Afrin.
In such complicated circumstances, it remains to be seen how the proposed Syrian Congress of National Dialogue could be held in Sochi, as planned, in end-January. The expectation was that the congress would pave the way for the drafting of a new constitution for Syria. To be sure, these contradictions will be exploited by the US to create rifts between Turkey and Russia (and Iran.) The US design is to keep Syria weak and divided for a foreseeable future so that its occupation of a big swathe of land in the strategic northern regions bordering Turkey and Iraq goes unchallenged and the Russian plans to push ahead a settlement in Syria somehow within this year get thwarted.
The good part is that the recent disturbances in Iran do not seem to have affected Tehran’s resolve to help Syrian government forces to regain the lost territories. In fact, Shamkhani made his remarks (cited above) during a meeting with the Syrian Parliament Speaker Hammoudeh Sabbagh in Tehran on Monday. (FARS)
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.