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Will Erdogan Really Leave Syria?

Turkey has called an end to its eight-month military operation in Syria, declaring Operation Euphrates Shield (ES) a success. “The operation under way has been concluded successfully,” a statement summarizing a meeting of the country’s National Security Council said March 29. It added that it had achieved its goals of securing Turkey’s borders against ISIL, and creating an opportunity for Syrians to return to areas that Turkey’s military now controls in northern Syria.

In a sense, the development is not surprising, as Turkey was already cornered in north Syria and it had no way to go. Yet, coming from Erdogan, the few raised eyebrows are understandable.

However, until the time of writing this report, it is understood that Turkey’s announcement concerns Euphrates Shield alone. We covered before the extent to which Turkey’s forces have been denied any further access in north Syria by both the US and Russia. Both countries made it clear that so far as Erdogan is reluctant to commit not to target the YPG, he will be faced by lines he cannot cross (US troops around Manbij, and now Russian forces in Afrin). When Erdogan refused to give any commitment of that kind, narrowing his potential space of movement started in earnest. Finally, it was evident for Ankara that, short of triggering a major crisis with Russia or the US, the ES units cannot move.

Operationally, the ES was rendered useless. Its mission became indeed a mission impossible. Turkey’s National Security Council must have seen that there is no space for ES to move, and if kept it will be a political liability without any military significance. In that sense, the decision is not surprising.

But what is surprising is to interpret the decision as a Turkish departure from Syria. It is not.

We have been following, in past reports, Erdogan’s demands conveyed to both Russia and the US to provide “guarantee” that the PKK affiliated YPG will pull back to the east of Euphrates once the battle of Raqqa is over, or better before. To our understanding, he got assurances that this will be the case, provided he refrains from attacking them until Raqqa is liberated. The deal was that these territories will be handed back to Assad.

But either Erdogan did not see those assurances as sufficient to address his worries, or, by remaining active in north Syria, he wanted to keep a place for Turkey in deciding the future of that country. In either case, the offers were de facto declined, and he carried on his operations.

Possibly, Ankara got fresh assurances from the US state Department during the preparations for Secretary Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey. But what was clear to all, including to Erdogan, is that his negotiating position has weakened substantially. The move of Russian forces to as close as 15 Km from Azaz was a strong message that Ankara could be heading to a replay of the “jet crisis” of November 2015.

Moreover, it was clear to all, except Erdogan, that Turkey’s military operations in Syria will never eliminate the PKK there. If it could, why then it did not eliminate it in Turkey? To add to the difficulty in the case of Syria, the PKK there is aided by the US and Russia. The relative weight of the effect of those operations should be weighed against the gains Turkey may achieve by playing a positive role. However, the calculus in Ankara is not that simple anyway.

Does that mean that Erdogan will totally close “the Syrian File”? Unlikely, except if he is offered what he believes to be sufficient to address his nation’s security worries.

The major issues on Turkey’s national security concerns will not be  addressed after ending the ES operation. Manbij is west of the Euphrates and it is a reminder to Erdogan that the YPG will not hesitate to take territories beyond Turkey’s “redline”.

However, it was clear that in order to get Erdogan to change his views in this juncture, the situation should change on the ground. And it did. The Russians moved to Afrin following the deployment of US forces around Manbij. Walls were rising all around the ES. At that point Erdogan was ready to ask: “By the way, what was your old offer if we pull out?”.

Ultimately, Erdogan found out that he has nothing left but to accept the US assurances, uncertain as they are.

But isn’t this war about Syria? Well, it used to be. Not anymore, though. The new Russian base south-west of Azaz does not even raise the Syrian flag. The YPG refused. And the US is moving forward on its plan to turn Tabqa airport into a military base as well. And of course, this one will not raise the Syrian flag neither. Even now, the issues are the YPG, the PKK, military bases, Raqqa and ES. None was even thought of at the beginning of Syrians revolt against Assad.

Raqqa is almost a finished story. The real issue now is Idlib. And in fact, It is even larger than Idlib in a certain sense. When this round of fighting is over, we will end up with a north Syria littered with Jihadists of all kinds and strains. In a way, the battle of Raqqa is Just the tip of the iceberg.

Where does Turkey stand in this larger context? It said it will pull out the ES forces, but how about the rest? In this “rest” there are YPG, PKK, moderate oppositions, tribes and Jihadists. What will Erdogan do in Idlib, for example?

Turkey sees what is directly related to its national interests: Reducing the threat of the PKK. US and Russia see what is important for their security: Reducing the threats of Jihadists. Attempts to create a synthesis to reconcile the two different objectives were not successful so far, how will they fare in the future?

Unless Erdogan makes a bigger U-Turn, the distance between Turkey and the major players in north Syria is destined to widen further in the coming couple of years. And he should not be blocked from making this bigger U-Turn when he is ready, or more accurately, when he is made ready. Just announcing a clear end game coupled with “Well, that is it, and it will not be changed”, may help, assuming that the lessons of this current episode have already been absorbed in Ankara.

But the problem will not be only Erdogan against the others. When the question of idlib, and beyond, will come forward, the Russians will see all the armed groups only in black, the US sees them in different colors, and the Turks see them all in white. How can any strategist synthesize this one?

This is precisely why the US-Russian coordination in Syria is focused only on this phase of the war, not the following ones. And this may be why the Russians are building a base close to Azaz and the Americans are eyeing Tabqa.

What will happen after this short-term division of labor? For “practical” minds, we will see when we get there-that is when we defeat ISIL. But the only “practical” way is not to separate the phases in this fashion. The current phase could be done more efficiently if it is incorporated in a clear road map to the endgame. Therefore, the answer should not be: Let us wait until the short-term coordination with the Russians fulfills its mission, then see.

In other words, the only short term solution, which is meaningful in longer term, is to establish a semi-autonomous, or self-administered, regions all over. This should be conditioned, though: no terrorist groups allowed. Is it possible in Idlib? Yes. The non-Nusra groups, upon seeing the endgame and what it will mean for them, will increase pressure on Nusra there. In other words, it is not only by your own force that you can get an effective fight against terrorists. And in this case, it may not even be by force as a principle tool.

In fact, the UN envoy, Staphan de Mistura, (and we were delighted to hear he is still alive), just proposed this self-administered regions’ approach.

Yet, what to do with Erdogan? The De Mistura recent non-paper, which discusses this self-administered approach, will get the Turks to absorb reality one bit after the other. In his part, Erdogan got to realize that the rise of the YPG to a level where everyone is knocking on their doors is due to the rise of Jihadists in northern Syria. And if there is a clear endgame plan that also demarks the lines of the Kurdish areas and the rest, and addresses the aspirations of the non-terrorist armed groups, maybe he will then look seriously at this bigger U-Turn.

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