Ankara counts itself a victor after Syria incursion
Days after Turkey defied an international outcry to push ahead with an offensive against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, Ankara was facing pressure on multiple fronts.
Donald Trump was threatening to “swiftly destroy” the Turkish economy with US sanctions as he faced mounting criticism from within his Republican party for initially clearing the way for the operation. European powers condemned the incursion and suspended arms sales to Ankara. And a sudden deal struck between the Kurds and Damascus meant that Syrian regime forces, supported by Russia, were rapidly advancing north into a region where they had not set foot for years, putting them on a potential collision course with Turkish troops.
But, on Friday, a day after the US brokered a five-day ceasefire to pause the offensive, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut a relaxed figure as he spoke in Istanbul, hailing a “new page” in Ankara’s relations with Washington and proclaiming a “victory against terrorism”.
He had reason to be confident. Under the deal reached late on Thursday after nearly five hours of talks between Mr Erdogan and Mike Pence, US vice-president, the Trump administration handed Turkey’s leader an outcome he has long pressed Washington to accept.
As a result, Ankara can now count itself a victor following a tumultuous week that has underlined the perception that the US is disengaging from the region, while also strengthening Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s hand and reinforcing Russia’s position as the powerbroker in the country.
“Turkey got what it wanted from the US,” said Emile Hokayem at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “What happened [with the US-Turkey deal] was a farce, not real negotiation because the US is an exiting power. It was a de facto acceptance of the fait accompli and of the new balance of power in the northern Middle East.”
Crucially for Mr Erdogan, the so-called safe zone cleared of Kurdish militants that Turkey has long desired along a section of its southern border is set to be created, while the threat of US sanctions on Ankara has been lifted — for now.
Under the US-Turkey deal, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which had been armed and trained by the US to fight against the jihadis of Isis, has 120 hours to pull back from the border region, give up its heavy weapons and dismantle its fortifications.
Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Edam think-tank, described it as a “win-win” for Turkey and the Trump administration.
“The failure of an agreement would have brought additional sanctions by the US, a reaction by Turkey and an escalation,” he said. “Also, this [deal] is the strong signal that the US partnership with [Kurdish forces], which has been such an irritant in the bilateral relationship, has come to an end.”
The US decision to arm the SDF had put a severe strain on relations with Ankara. Turkey considers the group an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party [PKK] which has fought a more than three-decade insurgency against Turkey.
Mr Erdogan saw the opportunity to launch the offensive against the SDF after Mr Trump provided the green light by withdrawing US troops from the border area following a telephone call between the two leaders. The US president then announced that he would pull all 1,000 US troops out of Syria.
These decisions triggered a rare bipartisan outcry from both Republicans and Democrats who accused Mr Trump of abandoning a US ally, the Kurds, while emboldening the Assad regime and its foreign backers, Russia and Iran.
Indeed, much will now depend on talks between Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin scheduled for Tuesday, just as the 120-hour deadline agreed under the US deal will expire.
“Tuesday is important for what we will do in the safe zone. We have no intention of remaining [in Syria],” Mr Erdogan said on Friday. He added that he had no objection to Syrian forces taking over areas previously controlled by the SDF, as long as the border areas were cleared of Kurdish fighters.
Mr Ulgen at Edam said that such shifting dynamics were likely to accelerate re-engagement between Ankara, which has been the main supporter of the Syrian opposition during the country’s eight-year civil war, and Damascus.
“Moscow’s game plan is to push Turkey towards recognition of the [Assad] regime, in return of which the regime will undertake responsibility for ensuring that this piece of territory is not to be used for exporting terrorist activities to Turkey,” he said.
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Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, described the ceasefire deal as “a chance if not to stop, then at least to suspend, the use of force”.
“While the very fact of the cessation of the military operation, of course, is encouraging, what will happen next is not completely clear yet,” he said. “And it will clearly not be decided by Washington.”
In north-east Syria on Friday, the ceasefire remained fragile, with the SDF accusing Turkey of continuing to shell Kurdish positions, killing five of its fighters.
SDF officials had suggested that the group would accept the ceasefire before accusing Turkey of violating it. Kurdish militants have been left weakened and marginalised by the events of the past two weeks.
Nawaf Xelil, director of the Center for Kurdish Studies, a UK-based think-tank, said the deal that agreed to the creation of a 30km deep buffer zone “legitimises Turkey’s occupation” in northern Syria.