The situation in Syria can be evaluated as “Russia won, the USA lost”
The specialist in Turkish-Russian relations on the outcome of Operation Peace Spring in north-eastern Syria
It’s been almost a week since the cessation of Operation Peace Spring of Turkish Armed Forces in north-eastern Syria. Last Tuesday Moscow and Ankara agreed that Russian military police and Syria border services would help withdraw subdivisions of the Kurdish Self-Defense Forces and their weaponry by 30 kilometres of the Syrian-Turkish border, after which Russian-Turkish patrol 10 km far from the operation’s border would begin. On Friday, heads of general staffs of Russia and Turkey discussed the current situation and security issues in Syria by phone. In an op-ed column in Realnoe Vremya, expert in Turkish-Russian relations, Director General of the International Institute for the Development of Scientific Cooperation (Moscow) Arif Asalıoğlu summarised the operation and evaluated the role of each of the sides.
“If the Kurds had turned all borders into the front line, the operation might have had another destiny”
The military operation launched by Turkish armed forces in north-eastern Syria became a topic for heated debates. After a phone talk of President Tayyip Erdoğan and USA President Donald Trump, there were rigorous warnings from the UN, Iran and EU countries about the operation named Peace Spring. It was noted in the White House’s statement that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation”. This statement was considered as the green light given by USA President Donald Trump to launch the operation in north-eastern Syria.
Ankara’s plan envisaged taking control over a territory of the Turkish-Syrian border 25-30 km far inland and 480 km long at the first stage. While the plan to return refugees expanded this zone to Deir ez-Zor. The expansion of the area planned to be occupied depended on the extent of resistance, the attitude of local peoples, actions of the Syrian state and its allies and the strategy the USA actually pursued. If the Syrian Democratic Forces had tried to turn all borders into the front line as they already claimed, the operation might have had another destiny. The attitude of the Arabs in the region is also important. The risks of this operation were very high.
The steps Syria, which considers the interference of Turkey functional to stop the American military presence, weaken the Kurds and drive them away to Damascus took together with its allies were effective. Syrian and allied militia forces were placed on alert in the east of the Euphrates River next to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. If the USA doesn’t impede these forces from going to the upper part of the Euphrates River, the advance of Turkey from the south can be stopped. Trump’s statement that Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters (banned in Russia) increased the probability that the Turkish forces will advance far below the borders of the buffer zone Erdoğan thinks about. In other words, the operation was to cover Al-Hasakah with its suburbs too. The Syrian army also had partial control over Al-Hasakah.
USA President Donald Trump announced that American troops would be withdrawn from the north of Syria. Soon it became known that Turkey would begin an operation in the region the USA forces would be withdrawn from. However, some details such as the territorial coverage and duration of the launched operation remained unknown.
Following USA President Donald Trump’s statement about the deployment of American troops to the south of the Turkish-Syrian border, the USA Department of Defense announced the end of withdrawal of soldiers from a specific region. However, the borders of this “specific region” weren’t announced. It became known from tweets posted by USA President Donald Trump that the attitude of the White House might change. As there were even statements with threats if Turkish armed forces violated the border. It means that Erdoğan and Trump agreed on the “specific zone”.
“The skilful and subtle diplomacy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs yields results”
After a 120-hour ceasefire that was agreed with the USA during the military operation launched by Turkey in northern Syria, President Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a new agreement as a result of talks.
After six hours of critically important talks between the two leaders, President Erdoğan said in his statement that the People's Protection Units would leave the 30-kilometre buffer zone in the next 150 hours. According to the agreement they reached, Turkey and Russia would provide security in the region.
The current situation can be evaluated as “Russia won, the USA lost”. Trump withdrew American soldiers from the region, Russian and Syrian militants are occupying the liberated sites. Bashar al-Assad kept his position. The skilful and subtle diplomacy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs yields results. Most importantly, the war ended.
Functionaries of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) signed agreements with two influential countries both in the region and world in a week. The AKP succeeded by presenting the public all this situation in all its glory in the country. It stirred up national feelings. Representatives of the party wrote on social media: “We became a superpower, the world should listen to us”.
The tension in the country’s domestic policy has gone down a bit. The crisis in the economy has taken a step back, though not for long. Austerity measures and high interest rates imposed by Turkey’s authorities to stop the growth of foreign currency caused a significant decline in the economy and reduced taxes. It is time to raise prices. The rise in public expenditure that couldn’t be reduced given the ruling party’s decisions led to a situation when the public budget, which has been brilliant for the first time in the first 15 years of the AKP’s rule in terms of indicators, is now raising concerns. UAA President Trump and his administration will refuse to support the Kurds, which will allow Russia and Syria to get an area of influence in the region. However, from Ankara’s point of view, Turkey can operate more freely.
Continuation of the military operation increases risks
A representative of the USA Department of Defense said on the air on BBC that the distance Turkey plans to move further inland from the border to carry out the operation after the withdrawal of American troops would be determined on the spot as they moved forward. He also noted that the operation could be carried out in different ranges depending on the terrain and demographic structure of the region.
He also added that the urban centres Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn are essential to prevent the People's Protection Units (YPG) from coming back and Arab migrants escaping from these regions to Turkey from locating here again. Then Ankara claimed that the YPG was still in the region despite the statements about its withdrawal and they just changed the uniform.
One of the most important risks was that according to the agreements Turkey was responsible for not only the operation but also the fate of ISIS fighters who were on the territory the USA troops were withdrawn from. According to information obtained from authorised people, there wasn’t accurate data about the number of ISIS fighters who were in prison in this region. Their number as well as the number of their families, that’s to say, women and children were planned to be identified after the operation. There would be a census of these people. And after it becomes clear how many of them arrived from Iraq and Syria and how many of them are foreign fighters, there will be made a decision what actions should be taken. And if, as President of Russia Vladimir Putin already said, it hadn’t been possible to take control over the ISIS fighters, Turkey and the Turkish people would have been their primary objective.
The United Nations warned that a new wave of terrorist attacks was expected on 3 August 2019. The report prepared by the UN read that “though the geographical caliphate of Islamic State has ceased to exist, member states agree many of the underlying factors that gave rise to [Islamic State] still exist”. Immediately after the announcement of the start of the operation, there were rigorous warnings from Germany and France. The EU countries urged to pay special attention to the ISIS problem.
If Germany issued a warning to Turkey about “grave consequences” of the military operation in northern Syria, France sent a much more rigorous statement, which said that Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria would facilitate the reinforcement of ISIS again. And it was stressed that this situation would just favour the terrorist organisation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France claimed: “We are deeply concerned by the information regarding a potential unilateral military operation by Turkey in northeastern Syria. We call on Turkey to avoid any initiative that would run counter to the interests of the Global Coalition against Daesh, of which it is a member”.