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Five Warring Sides Fighting Each Other for North Syria

It is futile to try to determine if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan obtained prior approval from Russia’s Vladimir Putin before expanding Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria. Most probably Putin gave Ankara the green light to go as far as Al Bab, an issue we know was raised in the October 10th meeting between the two leaders.

It will make no difference anyway. The outcome is that Turkey’s planes are bombing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Ankara’s justification for these air raids against the SDF is that the SDF is merely another name for the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG). Very few observers will differ with that argument.

Turkey wants to take Al Bab through its arm in northern Syria, the Euphrates Shield (ES). The ES does not want any ISIL or YPG presence west of the Euphrates. As we repeatedly said in previous issues of MEB, it was a terrible mistake to encourage the Kurds to cross the Euphrates and go further west. In fact, the problem will not end if Turkey’s ES captures Al Bab. The next phase will be getting the YPG out of Manbij. What we see is yet another conflict intensifying in slow motion in the war in north Syria.

After bombing SDF positions, Ankara claimed to have killed up to 200 fighters of the group, which is trained and armed by the Pentagon. By October 19, Turkey claimed that any armed group standing in the way of ES to Al Bab would be bombed again. The real number of fighters killed in the 14 Turkish air strikes is 15.

Just before the Turkish raids, whisperings in Turkey pointed to a deal between Erdogan and Putin by which Moscow would settle with verbal condemnation of any Turkish military operation against YPG units so long as the field of Ankara’s operation remained only west of the Euphrates. The condition of the deal was said to be that Turkish supported forces will not cross the river and that Ankara is to refrain from any long-term,direct military incursion inside Syrian territories.

It now appears that the two sides are doing exactly what rumors suggested. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov not only settled with verbal condemnation of the Turkish air raids, but also tried to place Ankara’s raids within an anti-American context. “As for reports of Turkish Air Force airstrikes in northern Syrian regions, we have heard about these statements. We are very alarmed about what is happening. As I understand it, we are talking about attacks on areas inhabited by the Kurds. Turkey is a member of the US-led, multinational coalition fighting Islamic State (ISIL) militants and Washington has to remain within the stated objective as commanders of the coalition,” Lavrov said October 20.

The Russian green light, if rumors are correct, was given in return for two commitments from Erdogan: 1- To fight ISIL; 2- To not bomb the Kurds in Afrin or east of the Euphrates. In other words, Putin gave Erdogan what may end his concerns about an Afrin to Hasakah Kurdish region, led by the PKK-affiliated YPG. This region would have turned into a national security nightmare for the Turks.

As much as Turkey tried to change its approach regarding ties to both Washington and Moscow in order to alter the dynamics in northern Syria and eliminate what it perceives as a national security threat, ISIL also decided to pave the way for a Turkish-Kurdish fight in the area to weaken both sides.

ISIL was quick to withdraw from Manbij and leave it to the YPG-dominated SDF. It also withdrew from Jarablus and Dabiq, leaving it to the Turkish-supported ES and FSA. Obviously, this could initiate a race for Al Bab between both sides and greatly increases the chance of direct clashes between them; indeed, they will eventually come face to face.  Meanwhile, Turkey says – ad nauseam – that it wants to clear west of Euphrates, and hopefully the east as well, from the YPG.

Yet, ISIL remains active in the area. It just wants to see the camp of its’ enemies, the SDF and ES, fight each other instead of fighting against it. And this is precisely what is happening. ISIL expanded in a small area west of the Euphrates during the conflict between its two enemies. There are now five parties warring on the ground in northern Syria: the regime, which is advancing north of Aleppo and around Hama; the Turks, who are preparing to take Al Bab through their allies on the ground; the YPG and the small opposition groups allied with it; the main groups of the opposition, which still control east and north Aleppo as well as Idlib; and the regime backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. Behind the five warring sides there is a maze of global and regional powers: the US, Russia, Iran, the Arabs, the Islamists, Iraqi Shia militias, and some western countries.

When we reflect on how Moscow went about this issue compared with how Washington handled it, we will immediately spot the difference in tactics of both powers concerning north Syria. The Pentagon was instructed to move within the limits of “ISIL first,” regardless of any other factor. Therefore, the US military focused on assisting the YPG, causing an uproar in Ankara. This was one of the key factors leading to this phase of current complications.

Washington ignored Erdogan’s loud objections, although those objections were based on legitimate national security concerns. Russia, on the other hand, understands that Turkey will not rest until it stops the YPG from connecting Afrin to the eastern region of the Euphrates. Moreover, Moscow realizes that Erdogan is ready to go as far as supporting ISIL to stop the PKK. Therefore, Putin worked out a deal by which the Turks’ concerns are addressed (for a price), all the while respecting the Kurdish areas in Afrin and east of the Euphrates in return for fighting ISIL. The Turks took Jarablus and Dabiq. ES and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are preparing to advance on Al Bab, which was announced as the SDF’s next stop after Manbij.

The US limited its’ role to supporting the SDF, which took Manbij and completely ignored Turkey’s complaints. If we assume that the ES will indeed take Al Bab first, as seems likely now, the question will be: What will the Turks do in Manbij? Will they attack the SDF there? And if this is the case, isn’t it worthwhile to note that even if ISIL does not exist in Manbij, there will still be a war over there?

Erdogan vowed on October 18 that Turkey would not rest before forcing the YPG out of Manbij. He said that after the ES forces take Al Bab, the battle to free Manbij of the YPG will begin.

This is very clear proof that “ISIL first” was a terrible mistake. For in a complex crisis like the Syrian one, it is wrong to listen to politicians when they talk about partial approaches, which neglect other dimensions of multi-faceted wars. Simplistic and naïve approaches, claimed by the Obama White House to be the definition of wise and prudent policies, were too damaging to be taken seriously by Pentagon strategists. However, this was indeed the Obama Administration’s policy in north Syria. Fortunately, this “prudent” stupidity will be over soon. If it is doesn’t end, we may see another decade of the Syrian war and several other ISILs.

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