Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has started mobilisation of troops, preparing for an upcoming offensive against Kurdish strongholds in the Syrian northeast, expected before next Christmas. Had the Americans not announced their withdrawal on December 19, it would have put him in direct confrontation with United States forces stationed east of the Euphrates River, who have been providing arms, money and cover for their Kurdish proxies since 2015. Erdogan insists that he can no longer tolerate Kurdish separatists on his borders with Syria, writing them all off as “terrorists” affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The Turkish operation further complicates the already volatile situation in the Syrian northeast. The Kurds are furious, begging Damascus and the Russians to intervene on their behalf, but both have made it clear that they have no intention of coming to the aid of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Syrians are watching which side collapses first, hoping that the military confrontation will either rid them of the Kurds, or of Erdogan’s occupation forces. In private, many draw parallels with the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, when the then US president Ronald Reagan stood by and watched, hoping that it would either lead to the fall of Saddam Hussain in Iraq or Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.
The Russians are playing it more delicately, hoping for a trade-off with Erdogan, made all the more easy after the Trump withdrawal. Back in 2016, they looked the other way as Turkish tanks rumbled into Syrian border cities such as Jarablus and Afrin. In return, Erdogan did not lift a finger to support his proxies in Aleppo, when the Russian air force pounded them to dust in December 2016. More recently, the Turkish president abandoned his proxies in the countryside of Damascus last February, enabling a complete takeover of East Ghouta in exchange for a green light to overrun Afrin — a strategic Kurdish town west of the Euphrates River, lying deep within Russia’s sphere of influence.
Much of that reasoning ought to re-apply today. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not obstruct Turkish territorial ambitions, so long as they are limited to border cities and towns, around places like Kobani and Ras Al Ayn, on the Turkish border. Manbij is also on his hit list, west of the Euphrates, which the Kurds had liberated from Daesh back in 2016 and so is Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo, where he claims, Kurdish separatists had fled after the February attack on Afrin. He has no intention of entering major cities like Al Hassakeh and Al Qamishly, where Syrian government troops are still present, side-by-side with the Americans and the Kurds. His ambition — for now — is to expand the buffer zone that presently includes Jarablus, Azaz, and the inland cities of Al Bab and Afrin.
Erdogan has already successfully cleared these areas from any Kurdish presence and he hopes to repatriate Arab Sunnis on the border strip, either fighters from different battlefields in Syria who were defeated by the Russians since 2015, or Syrian refugees living in Turkey since 2011. The end objective is a demographic reshuffle, replacing the Kurdish population with an all-Arab one. Talks are presently underway between Turkish authorities and Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Al Jarba, a former president of the Syrian National Coalition. The Turks are now toying with the idea of having him raise an army of Arab tribesmen, which will patrol the border strip once cleansed of all Kurdish presence. Given that its backbone would be composed of Syrian Arab fighters, nobody would be able to accuse it of being an occupying force, the Turks believe.
The Turkish president is watching to see how the Americans will react to his present threats, expecting nothing but lip service for the Kurds from the administration of United States President Donald Trump, even after they complete their evacuation.
Trump realised that he cannot continue his balancing act between the Turks and the Kurds. For two years now, he has tried to appease both, seeing promise in the Kurdish warriors who were very effective partners in the war on Daesh. Military aid to all other Syrian opposition groups have been severed by the Trump White House. The only militias still on US payroll were the SDF and the YPG, who are even mentioned explicitly in America’s 2018-2019 budget.
US patrols have recently been set up to monitor the border area, hoping that they can keep the peace — at a bare minimum — in Kurdish territories. By the time Erdogan’s troops march in, these stations would have been dismantled.
Putin, on the other hand, wants something in return for letting Erdogan get his way. A handful of cities and towns currently held by Turkish proxies need to be restored to Syrian and Russian control — Maaret Al Nouman in the Idlib governorate, its subdistrict of Khan Sheikhoun, Jisr Al Shughour and Idlib. Erdogan will expand his border zone, while the Syrians and Russians will divide the territory left behind by the Americans, leaving nothing for the Kurds.
Trump understands that Turkey is a vital Nato ally. The more he supported the Kurds of Syria, the more likely Erdogan was going to inch closer to the Russians, putting Nato at real risk. There was only so much he could have done to help the Kurds and going to war against Turkey was simply not an option. Trump can only sit back and watch, seeking guarantees that the Turkish operation will be quick, limited and that it will not completely dismantle Kurdish presence in the Syrian northeast — an assurance that will never be complete if not co-signed by the Russians and the Syrians. Both are in no position to do that.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.