On August 24, Turkish ground forces supported by tanks and warplanes forces crossed the Syrian border in a large scale effort to seize the city of Jarabulus from Islamic State (IS).
Jarabulus is a vital supply line for IS and one of its last remaining strongholds on the border.
Turkey is also concerned over the growing influence of US-backed Syrian Kurds across the Syrian frontier, where they have captured large swathes of territory since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. A US-backed alliance between the Kurdish YPG (the Popular Protection Units) and some Syrian Arabs called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been advancing and taking over strategic areas from various armed Islamist groups. It scored a success by driving Islamic State (IS) militants out of the town of Manbij this month. The jihadist forces had to retreat to the town of Jarablus on the Turkish border. Turkey is also wary of the Kurds trying to take control of another border town to the west, Azaz, which it sees as part of a planned «buffer zone» in northern Syria.
Turkey sees the US-supported YPG as tied to the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which has been waging an armed campaign mainly in the country’s southeast. The PKK is officially considered a terrorist organization by the EU and the US but Turkey has failed to convince its Western allies to regard YPG operating in the north of Syria, likewise.
US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Turkey hours after operations began on a pre-planned trip, the most senior US official to visit since a failed July 15 coup shook confidence in Turkey’s ability to step up the fight against Islamic State. Operation «Euphrates Shield», named after the river running nearby, was Turkey’s first major military operation since then. Mr Biden addressed the concerns at a news conference after his meeting with Mr Erdogan, saying the Syrian Kurds, an American ally in the fight against the Islamic State militants, would have to withdraw to the eastern side of the Euphrates River. The visit took place at the time the US-Turkey relationship is going through hard times as Ankara accused the US of being involved in the failed coup attempt.
It strikes an eye that Turkey launched its offensive right after the SDF announced its intention to seize Jarablus.
The SDF already controls the eastern bank of the Euphrates opposite the town. Kurdish leaders view Turkey’s operation as a hostile attack to be rebuffed.
Kurdish media reported heavy artillery shelling in the Manbij area, which was seized by the SDF from IS group control earlier this month.
There is a risk that a Kurdish advance toward Jarabulus could lead to a confrontation with Turkey.
Meanwhile, Kurdish militias and Syrian government forces are fighting for control of the northeastern city of Hasakah. The two sides once worked together to combat IS, but now the Syrian government is accusing the Kurdish militias of seeking to divide the country. The Kurds, on the other hand, accuse the government of having a secret understanding with Turkey against them.
The recent events change the whole landscape with US-backed Kurds opposing the Syrian government troops in Hasakah and Turkish military ‘freeing’ Jarablus. With all fighting each other, further escalation will add fuel to the flames and greatly complicate the situation to benefit Islamic State.
It’s important to note that Turkey has notified Russia about its operation.
Russia has expressed deep concern over Turkey’s ground incursion into Syria, saying it raises the risk of civilian casualties and the worsening of ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs.
Moscow believes the Syrian crisis can be resolved only on the basis of international law through dialogue involving all ethnic groups, including the Kurds.
Urgent steps are required to coordinate the efforts of the major actors involved in the conflict. Some things offer hope. On August 24 – the day the Turkish forces launched the operation – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by telephone with US Secretary of State John Kerry. With so many things unsolved and still undecided in Russia-US relationship and the situation in Syria, the two foreign chiefs left other things aside to tackle the burning issue. US and Russian officials, whose countries back opposite sides in the five-year Syrian war, have been meeting to agree on military cooperation in the fight against their common enemy there, the Islamic State militant group. Kerry said earlier this week the talks were nearing an end, with technical teams still meeting to discuss details.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Turkey on August 31. The visit takes place against the background of Turkey taking steps to normalize the relations with the Syrian government.
As Turkish leader has put it, «Without Russia’s participation it’s impossible to find a solution to the Syrian problem. Only in partnership with Russia will we be able to settle the crisis in Syria».
Hot on the heels of his visit to Russia, the Turkish President is reportedly planning to visit Tehran to talk up the prospect of an Iranian-Russian-Turkish realignment. The visit is also expected to normalize ties between Turkey and Iran, two major actors in the region.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s surprise August 12 visit to Turkey opened a new chapter in regional cooperation between the two neighbors.
The visit was part of Tehran’s show of solidarity that began during the coup attempt with high standing Iranian officials making phone calls to express support.
All in all, these developments indicate that Russia, Iran and Turkey are engaged in intensive efforts to work out a common position on the Syrian crisis and the ways to settle it. A Russia-Turkey-Iran coalition is emerging. It would be logical to surmise that the parties will be united by the common goal of preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.
Actually, this is the time of changes. With IS and other extremist groups defeated, the problem of Syrian Kurds will inevitably come to the fore. Neither the Syrian government, nor other actors like Turkey, nor the so-called «moderate» Syrian opposition are ready to accept the idea of «federalization» with Syrian Kurdistan enjoying a special status. But using force against Kurds will have grave implications and weaken the anti-IS alliance. The Kurdish armed formations (Peshmerga) are the main force on the ground to strike IS, this is an irrefutable fact to make them an ally of anyone whose goal is to do away with the IS threat.
Russia is in the position to tackle the problem using diplomatic means. It has significant advantages as an impartial mediator. This February Syrian Kurds opened a representative office in Moscow. «This is a historic moment for the Kurdish people politically and diplomatically»,said Sinam Mohamad, the European Representative of the Rojava Self-Ruled Democratic Administration, the de-facto government running Kurdish-held northern Syria. «For too long we have been unable to represent our interests on the world stage. This will allow us to have a voice abroad».
China, Russia’s strategic partner, is another important actor which has recently decided to take an active part in the efforts to settle the Syrian crisis.
Russia and China have a long history of coordinating their diplomatic efforts on Syria. Moscow is also a good friend of Iran. Russia and Turkey have normalized the relations recently. Actually, Russia is the only country that enjoys good working relations with all major actors involved in the Syrian conflict to make it perfectly suited for the role of the mediator. Its position is unique. Hardly anyone else can prevent the worst under the circumstances.