Turkey launched its third cross-border operation, Operation Peace Spring, to eliminate terror elements in Syria on Oct. 9.
The experts in the West who have developed sympathy for the outlawed PKK, listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. and the E.U., and its Syrian offshoot, the People's Protection Units (YPG), were stunned by the announcement of the operation. They alleged that the operation would be limited and face resistance by the YPG, which has been backed by the Pentagon.
However, it took just five days for Turkey to liberate Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, the initial targets of the operation, which started with warplanes that carried out airstrikes against the YPG's positions and arsenal. Following the airstrikes, ground forces, i.e. the Syrian National Army (SNA) led by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) entered the area. The town centers of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn are now under the TSK's control.
Operation Peace Spring easily reached the strategic M4 highway, which runs from Latakia to Aleppo and continues further east to the Iraqi border. However, it appeared that the operation would not be as fast as it started. Instead, the Turkish army secured the territory between the Turkey-Syria border and the M4 highway, a distance of around 10 kilometers. This was a priority for Turkey as the YPG's attacks targeted Turkey's southern towns Akçakale and Ceylanpınar, which neighbor Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn respectively. Twenty civilians were killed as rockets and mortar shells fired by YPG/PKK terrorists in Syria hit Turkish border towns.
That being said, the YPG wasn't able to resist Turkey's operation even though many expected it after the U.S. withdrawal. Pundits in the West thought for more than two years that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been bluffing about the east of Euphrates and he would never go through with his vowed Syria operation.
Starting with this summer, they began to see that this time Erdoğan was decisive and Turkey had already prepared for an operation east of the Euphrates. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has always been reluctant to stay in Syria and tried to withdraw U.S. troops, but he could not do it due to the fact that the Pentagon and many others in Washington stopped him. The pressure made him avoid such an order. He was squeezed between internal pressures and Erdoğan's determination. At the end of the day, Trump couldn't convince Erdoğan not to launch the operation and Turkey started its long-waited operation.
The Turkey-U.S. deal
To recap – a deal was reached by Turkey and the U.S on Aug. 7. Accordingly, both states were going to implement initial measures immediately to address Turkey's security concerns, establish joint operations against threats and coordinate and manage the establishment of a safe zone together. Both countries maintained that the safe zone in question would become a "peace corridor" and every effort would be made to help displaced Syrians return home.
As Washington in the past had not kept its promises, Ankara was more careful this time and reiterated that it would act and start a unilateral operation on its border if the U.S. did not expedite its promises. As U.S. forces continued to drag their feet, we can say that they forced Turkey to act alone.
After it was seen that the Operation Peace Spring was moving quicker than expected and the threats of the West including sanctions, most of which came from the U.S. Senate, did not stop Turkey from pursuing the operation, the U.S. found itself in a tough situation: Either they would reach a deal with Turkey or they would end up rubbing a NATO ally the wrong way, affecting the future of the alliance.
Trump sent his Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a cease-fire between Turkey and the YPG terrorists, an offer that Turkey would never accept. Instead, Turkey accepted to suspend its operation in northern Syria for five days, which ended on Tuesday, in order to for the YPG terrorists to withdraw from the area. Accordingly, the YPG was going to pull back from Turkey's proposed 32-kilometer deep safe zone on Turkey's border. It was meant to be a pause for 120 hours and Turkey would resume its operation if the YPG terrorists did not withdraw.
The U.S. authorities informed Turkey that the YPG had withdrawn from the designated safe zone area in northern Syria, the Ministry of National Defense (MSB) confirmed in a statement on Tuesday.
First successes at the table
This was the first success of Turkey as it initiated a de-facto shift on the ground, which brought the U.S. on the table once again, but this time the U.S. had to be serious. The international media that spread propaganda about Turkey is now upset regarding the six years of work to establish a PKK corridor in northern Syria was destroyed by Turkey in less than one week. However, from Turkey's perspective, what has to be done is done as it was a matter of national security.
Turkey started its operation from just two strategical locations instead of multiple points on the border. In fact, the TSK has the capacity and capability to go into northern Syria from more than two critical points; however, it did not do so. After its quick coverage of the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, it slowed down its march.
However, the military experts thought that Operation Peace Spring would spill to the west of Euphrates, the Manbij area, in the next phase as the operation was on turbo mode. Accordingly, opening a new front from the west of Manbij, the Turkish army would reach the Euphrates River, after it secured the M4 highway from the town of Ayn Issa toward Hasakah. Then it would capture and control Manbij and Ayn al-Arab, also known as Kobane, thought experts. Instead, Ankara just retaliated YPG attacks on Turkish towns but did not go into northern Syria from different points on the border even though it could have easily done so.
I think that it was a long-thought out and well-planned strategy to slow down after its quick progress and not go toward the west or east of the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. In addition to the goal of showing the world that Turkey was not there to invade northern Syria but to change the status quo on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey was also seeking an ally to establish the long-time planned safe zone which would be cleansed from the terrorist elements and become a safe and secure place for Syrian refugees.
Was Ankara surprised when the YPG went to the Syrian regime's door to make a deal with the Syrian regime in order to protect itself from the fight which it would lose? Of course not. Or do you think that Turkey was shocked when the Syrian regime happily accepted the offer of the YPG terrorists? Turkey was not shocked.
Kremlin on the move
At that moment, Russia, the other superpower, appeared in the play zone. Was it an unexpected development that Russia and Turkey reached a deal on Tuesday, exactly the day Turkey and the U.S. deal ends? I don't think so.
Initiating the Astana peace process to de-escalate violence in Syria, both Russia and Turkey have been working on ending the ongoing civil war despite the fact that Turkey has supported the Syrian opposition and Russia has backed the Syrian regime since the beginning.
The new historical agreement reached by Erdoğan and Putin on Tuesday was another crucial step toward the end of the civil war in Syria, a slow but ongoing process, even though they have faced sabotage. While the two leaders agreed on a deal with regards to northern Syria on Tuesday, the memorandum of understanding between the two countries has also underlined their efforts for the Syrian Constitutional Committee which would be the beginning of a political solution to the eight-year-long civil war. That might be the most important article of memorandum even though many have not paid much attention to it.
"Starting at 12 noon of Oct. 23, 2019, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, outside the area of Operation Peace Spring, to facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons 30 km from the Turkish-Syrian border, which should be finalized in 150 hours. e Turkish-Syrian border, which should be finalized in 150 hours. At that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will start in the west and the east of the area of Operation Peace Spring within a depth of 10 km, excluding Qamishli city," the memorandum stated with regards to the YPG's presence, along with nine other articles reached.
A new phase in Syria
Here we are now. In less than two weeks, a new phase has opened in Syria as Turkey shifted the balance in the northeast of the war-torn country. The map of territorial control has totally changed. Today, the Americans are out of northern Syria while Turkey and the Russians are in. I do not count the Syrian regime as its actions and fate completely depend on Russia's decisions, a situation that also frustrates Iran.
As cases of Russia acting out of sync with Assad's Iran-backed allies in the war are increasing day by day, and speculations that Russia will force Iran out of Syria are growing, we will see what will happen on side of Assad supporters, but it is for certain that the YPG withdraw from the Turkish border, otherwise it would be crushed by the Turkish army.
In addition to Russia's support with regards to the withdrawal of the YPG terrorists from the Turkish-Syrian border and accepting Turkey's security concerns, many in Russia, Turkey and all around the world still think and had speculated that Putin would urge Erdoğan to directly contact Bashar Assad. Some in Russia also said again that Turkey had no right to create a "safe zone" inside Syria unless it got the consent of Assad. However, Putin ignored the Syrian regime's threats toward Turkey and didn't utter the name of Assad in Sochi this week. He agreed with Erdoğan instead of Assad, who had to accept the deal as he had no choice.
I don't know what you think but I am sure that Assad will be gone at the end of the day if the Syrian Constitutional Committee's efforts are not sabotaged. Putin will not carry Assad on his shoulders forever, and also, he wants to show the world that Russia can bring stability to a war-torn country in the Middle East where the Americans could never succeed. But the main issue for him is to build a security force for the future of Syria, as the Bashar Assad regime has lost too many people during the civil war, while Erdoğan's priority is to establish a safe zone for Syrians who are waiting to go back to their country. Which group or groups will be part of the Syrian army once the country is stabilized and begins to go back to normal is what I bet Putin is working on, but also he knows that the Syrians will not go back to Syria as long as Assad stays.
It is obvious that both Erdoğan and Putin have an endgame in Syria on the basis of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. There is a long way to go but I believe that there is a plan on the table for the future of Syria.
As for the YPG, they have lost the dream of a PKK statelet in northern Syria and they are now back to the old days before 2013. The PKK once had a chance to make peace with Turkey as Ankara was ready to launch a peace process if the PKK laid down their arms; however they refused to do so and decided to carry the Syrian civil war to Turkey. The Turkish army crushed the PKK in Turkey and carried out operations targeting PKK positions in Iraq.
And this month, Ankara has clearly shown that it can and will crush the PKK in Syria as well if they do not withdraw. In addition to that, the PKK are not wanted anymore on the land that Turkey is planning to establish a safe zone on, neither by the U.S. nor by Russia. They might be used by the U.S. to counter Iran in Syria or go to Iraq and still be a tool of other countries. But they are not a non-state actor anymore, which was an illusion in the first place.