While the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) continues in its advance toward the DAESH stronghold of al-Bab as part of Operation Euphrates Shield, hopes to extend the Turkish and Russian brokered cessation of hostiles in Syria were wrecked again after the uncompromising attitude of the Assad regime against the entry of trucks delivering humanitarian aid and an accidental U.S. strike on Syrian troops over the weekend.
Daily Sabah sat with Ufuk Ulutaş, Foreign Policy Director at SETA Foundation,and discussed all the dimensions of the Syrian crisis. Regarding the reaction of the FSA forces against U.S. soldiers, Ulutaş said the U.S. has alienated almost every single party on the ground in Syria by supporting the People's Protection Units' (YPG) racist enterprise and that the reaction of some of the FSA factions to the U.S. Special Forces is merely a display of ire. Ulutaş underlining that Operation Euphrates Shield is an operation with both political and military objectives and said he believes the fourth objective of the operation would be to trigger new talks for a political transition based on new realities on the ground.
Commenting on the possibility of Turkey facing the YPG and the U.S. afterwards in Syria, Ulutaş said that the U.S. won't take the risk facing Turkey in Syria and added that the success of Operation Euphrates Shield could shift the balance and force the U.S. to revise its northern Syrian projects, which have already started falling apart.
DailySabah: Over the weekend, the U.S. 'accidentally' struck Syrian troops and killed more than 60 soldiers. Thereafter the UNSC held an emergency meeting at the request of Russia to discuss the matter. How would you evaluate these incidents?
Ufuk Ulutaş: The U.S. and Russia have long been negotiating about Syria and recently agreed on some sort of "cessation of hostilities." The text of the agreement has not been made public so neither us nor the very Syrian parties which were forced to abide by it know about the details of the agreement. This leaves us in the dark where we can only speculate on to what extent the agreement itself is related with what happened in Deirez-Zor. Despite the U.S. appeasement of Russia in Syria and countless Kerry-Lavrov meetings, the two states are still competing for power and influence in the region. Judging by the bitter statements of the Russian and U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. after the "accidental" airstrike, it would be fair to argue that the two countries have not been negotiating for the prospect of peace in Syria, but to contain each other in Syria and beyond. The question whether the U.S. hit Syrian regime forces accidentally or not will dominate discussions. It is either a complete intelligence failure by the U.S., which would not be surprising considering the U.S.'s previous intelligence failures in Syria; or the U.S. wanted to send Russia as well as the regime a message while "the last chance for a unified Syria", as Kerry put it, is fading away. That message contains warnings to both parties as to the game changer nature of U.S. airstrikes which the U.S. avoided despite grave war crimes and human rights violations perpetrated by the regime and its allies.
DS: Another interesting recent development occurred on Friday. U.S. Special Forces soldiers were reportedly forced to flee a town in northern Syria after Free Syrian Army fighters threatened them. Why do you think FSA army acted against U.S. soldiers?
U.U.: American policy in Syria is a complete failure. One cannot overemphasize this. Each and every time the U.S. has had a direct contact with the armed opposition it has turned out to be a complete disaster. Several train and equip programs failed dramatically due to the U.S. intransigence on picking the wrong guys with wrong motivations to further U.S. interests in Syria rather than bringing some semblance of peace to the country. The U.S. administration's priorities in Syria never met the opposition's expectations, and U.S. inaction and policy failures in Syria not only failed the Syrian people in general but also paved the way for the emergence and expansion of terrorist organizations such as DAESH and the YPG. The U.S. also exacerbated divisions within the opposition ranks, turning one group against the other, which consequently empowered the Assad regime. The U.S. turned such a terrorist group as the YPG into their primary ally by investing in them militarily and politically. By supporting the YPG's racist enterprise, the U.S. antagonized almost every single party on the ground in Syria. Hence, some FSA factions' reactions toward the U.S. But the show of force is merely a display of ire.
DS: The negotiations for a permanent resolution in Syria are now proceeding quickly. Do you believe these negotiations are promising?U.U.: For the negotiations to be successful, both the Syrian regime and the opposition forces should agree that this conflict cannot be resolved through military means. As both parties have not shown any indication of such an understanding, so far negotiations have been futile. To persuade the actors in Syria, sincere international pressure and mediation is required. However, we have so far seen that the international pressure has been solely used on the opposition forces in a bid to make them more conciliatory. The regime on the other hand has been nothing but free-riders when it comes to political negotiations. With Turkey's ongoing Euphrates Shield operation, we may see the emergence of new realities on the ground which would create new power dynamics and open a new page in negotiations. Euphrates Shield is empowering the opposition not only against DAESH and the YPG but also against the regime. It is also turning them into better negotiators in future political talks. This, together with the rising challenges of territorial division, terrorism and the perpetuation of armed conflict, there may be greater cause to create a healthier base for political negotiations.
Having said that, I am still somewhat pessimistic about the ongoing negotiations. First, there is no sign of de-escalation in Syria. Fierce battles continue on several fronts in Aleppo, Hama, and suburbs of Damascus. Kerry and Lavrov dominate the scene and expect other actors to follow what they agree on without even giving them the courtesy of informing the other actors what exactly they agree on. No doubt, Syria is a war by proxies, but still the domestic actors should be involved in the proceedings and negotiations that are supposed to shape the lives of Syrians, not Americans or Russians. The fact that Kerry and Lavrov see in themselves the right to decide on matters regarding Syria is highly problematic to start with. There is also no guarantee that the new U.S. administration will go by what their predecessor agreed on with Russia.
DS: At this week's U.N. General Assembly, Syria will be one of the main topics of discussion. Is it possible that the U.N. might come up with a concrete resolution for the Syrian crisis?
I doubt it. I believe that there might be certain talks regarding the extension of cessation of hostilities in Syria. Yet, under these conditions, it doesn't seem possible that the decision taken by the U.N. could be enforced in Syria. As a matter of fact, the cessation of hostilities proposed and enforced by Russia and the U.S. isn't actually working. The regime is also not allowing the entrance of humanitarian aid to Aleppo. In this sense, the cessation of hostilities is fruitless. Unfortunately, I expect the escalation of violence in the following days as has been the case after every failed attempt at a cessation of hostilities in Syria.
Regarding the U.N. General Assembly, I believe the most the U.N. can do is to propose starting the Geneva negotiations anew. As I've said, the success of the new negotiations relies on the developments at the field.
DS: While talking on the developments, you have highlighted Operation Euphrates Shield. What is your take on the operation that started three weeks ago?Turkey has four objectives. The first was to clear the border areas of DAESH, which it has achieved. The second objective was to bring geographical depth to the border areas liberated from DAESH, and this is still continuing. The operation on Al-Bab is a part of the second objective. I believe the third objective is to clear the border of all terrorist elements; that is to say the PKK and its Syrian affiliate YPG. Facilitated by the first three objectives, the fourth objective would be to trigger new talks for political transition based on new realities on the ground. Therefore, Euphrates Shield is an operation with both political and military objectives.
DS: The Turkish-backed FSA has commenced an operation to liberate Al-Bab from DAESH and DAESH is expected to demonstrate a fierce resistance. What is your opinion on this subject?
Al-Bab is DAESH's power house in the Aleppo countryside. DAESH has a good number of militants in the city, along with various entrenchments and military equipment. The city has a considerable civilian population which could complicate a military operation against the city. DAESH, like the YPG, is known for using civilians as human shields. Also, the loss of Al-Bab would mean the end of DAESH in Northern Syria, and this will surely motivate DAESH to defend the city.
Yet, as DAESH wouldn't be able to face and win a battle against the Turkish armored divisions backed by air support, they might consider a retreat to Raqqa, in order to not suffer heavy losses and demoralize their militants. At the end of the day, Raqqa is more important than Al-Bab; and wasting resources in Al-Bab could cost DAESH dearly in Raqqa. So, they will take a strategic decision here whether to hold on to al-Bab and lose a lot of manpower, equipment and prestige or to move its forces to Raqqa to reinforce its ranks in their Syrian "capital." The news from the field, albeit conflicting, so far suggests that they are preparing to defend the city.
DS: Another objective of the operation is to capture Manbij. What is the possibility of Turkey facing YPG, and the U.S. afterwards, if this is attempted?
YPG forces haven't retreated from Manbij yet and as long the U.S. doesn't press them, they will not retreat. Turkey has declared the YPG forces on the western bank of the Euphrates will become a target. Furthermore, in the midterm, I believe that other regions where YPG forces exist will also become a target. I have said that Turkey aims to clear its borders from terrorist elements. After capturing Manbij and al-Bab, Turkey may launch an operation to clear Afrin, which borders the Turkish cities of Hatay and Kilis, from the YPG. As long as the YPG has Afrin, I believe that there will be attempts to form a YPG corridor via Tell Rifaat. Therefore, Turkey cannot leave Afrin to the YPG.
Regarding facing the U.S., if the YPG doesn't retreat from Manbij, Turkey will risk facing the YPG and even the U.S. However, I don't think the U.S. would risk facing Turkey in Syria given the fact that it has antagonized every single actor on the ground. The U.S. perceived the YPG as a useful utility up until now. If and when the YPG starts losing ground in the face of Turkish and FSA operations, the U.S. would not invest more in a losing actor. As I have said, the success of Operation Euphrates Shield could shift the balance and force the U.S. to revise its northern Syrian projects.
DS: How do you evaluate the U.S.' proposition to Turkey that suggests a joint operation to liberate Raqqa from DAESH?The actors that will play an active part in liberating Raqqa and Mosul from DAESH will earn the right to have say in the future of these regions. Therefore, Turkey won't abstain from participating in operations those cities. Yet, this doesn't imply that Turkey will use its land forces to liberate Raqqa. Turkey may support the operations with its air force and a limited number of special forces. However, I don't believe that Turkey will be eager to have another front while the Euphrates Shield operation is still in action.
Turkey is pushing its own agenda forward with the said operation. As a country with a long border with Syria and facing direct terrorist threats, Turkey has its own priorities and sensitivities with regard to Syria, most of which are different from the ones of the U.S. The U.S. insists on pushing its own priorities on other actors; and the message given by Turkey to the U.S. is: "I don't care about your priorities if they clash with mine". Turkey cannot idly watch U.S. plans to create a YPG/PKK statelet on its border. President Erdoğan's statement before his departure to China for the G20 summit signifies this stance. When asked on the statements of the U.S. officials regarding the YPG's retreat, Erdoğan said that Turkey will rely on its own observations, not U.S. statements. This indicates that Operation Euphrates Shield is continuing in spite of the U.S.
Moreover, the U.S. is not the only country that Turkey held meetings with regarding the operation. There are various negotiations with Russia as well. The Russian Chief of the General Staff's visit to Ankara last week can be regarded as a meeting to eliminate all possible issues which may emerge during the operations. In this sense, while conversing with the U.S., Turkey has diversified its channels of communication with various actors and is pursuing a multilateral plan to fight terrorism, whether by a group or a state, of all sorts in Syria and Iraq.
DS: The negotiations about an operation to Mosul are almost concluded. How will Turkey contribute to this operation?
Turkey supports of an operation in Mosul. Peshmerga units as well as local Iraqis are being trained by Turkey against DAESH to take part in an operation in Mosul. Turkey is proposing an inclusionary and comprehensive resolution for the city, in order not to alter Mosul's demographic and ethnic structure. Meanwhile, Iran is proposing an operation that would alter the city's demography in favor of its proxies. Turkey is quite sensitive about the demographic composition of the cities as demographic engineering has cost regional countries dearly in terms of the escalation of prolonged ethnic and sectarian conflict, the total collapse of cities, the flow of refugees and the emergence and expansion of terrorist organizations. In short, Turkey will support an operation to Mosul in the same manner as it will support and take part in an operation in Raqqa.
Is Iran losing power in Syria after all these developments?
I don't believe so. Iran is an important actor which has its own soldiers within Syria and continues to support its Shiite proxies. Its power is consolidated near Aleppo and Syrian territories near Lebanon. Of course, there are certain issues that complicate Iran's interference in Syria. Firstly, it has suffered significant losses. Iran has lost numerous generals in Syria. Secondly, Iran has a sectarian viewpoint that prevents it from perceiving other dimensions of the conflict. It put itself into a zero sum game, and doesn't know how to get out of it. Thirdly, there are differences between Iran and Russia regarding the future of Syria. For example, Russia is protecting its own interests as well as representing Israel's interests in Syria, which clash with Iranian interests. In tandem with Israel, Russia doesn't desire a structure which is dominated by Iranian proxies in the future of Syria because this would limit Russia's influence and harm Israel's security. The nature of Iran's intervention in Syria and its disagreements with Russia will therefore limit Iran's capacity in Syria, yet Iran will maintain its influence to a certain degree in the war-torn country.
You said that Russia is protecting Israel's interests in Syria. Could you elaborate on this subject?
It is always said that Israel has a powerful lobby in the U.S. This can also be said for Russia. I should remind you that Russian officials met with Israeli officials before the launch of Russia's operation in Syria. It can be said that Russia and Israel are in coordination regarding their Syrian policies. They share common objectives. Neither Russia nor Israel don't want Iran to dominate Syria. Secondly, neither country wants the Syrian regime to become a power that may threat Israel. Lastly, both of the countries want to keep enjoying the opportunities that the Syrian crisis offered them. With the Syrian crisis, Israel has deepened its ties with numerous Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and some Gulf countries. Similarly, Russia has reasserted itself as the major power broker in the Middle East and demonstrated that it is determined to support its allies. With this demonstration, the U.S.' failure in supporting its own allies was revealed. As the U.S. was shown to be an unreliable partner in the Middle East, its deterrence factor decreased significantly, while Russia's rose. Therefore, both countries gained politically from the Syrian crisis and want to hold on to those gains without extra rivalry and outside challenges.
Did Russia accomplish its goals in the year-long operation?
I believe so. It is safe to say that they have achieved most of their goals. Russia's priority was to save the regime from being overthrown at a time when the regime was losing decisively, and they have achieved this. Moreover, they turned the tide of the battle in favor of the regime. Russia's intervention also contained Iran's influence in Syria. Thirdly, Russia became an indispensable actor in the Syrian crisis and also in the Middle East. They forced the U.S. to follow a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Russia, and reclaimed their regional deterrence. It is fair to argue therefore that they have so far achieved their primary objectives.
How do you evaluate the comments which suggest that Turkey's foreign policy is shifting significantly?
Looking at Turkey's statements, politically speaking, it can be seen that there isn't a significant shift in policies. For instance, Turkey has previously stated that Assad might stay in power during a transitional period; and it still preserves this position. Turkey still thinks Assad has lost his legitimacy by killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians. They have been supporting the moderate opposition for years and there is no change in that. Furthermore, Turkey has voiced its opposition against a YPG corridor in Syria and still shows its disapproval. Turkey has also been saying that DAESH must be fought effectively. Therefore, there have not been any significant shifts.
On the other hand, what is new is Turkey's military operations. Previously, Turkey didn't launch extensive military operations with armored divisions and soldiers, although it hit DAESH and YPG targets several times and supported the anti-DAESH forces on the ground. The actual difference therefore is military operations.
Why didn't Turkey launch this operation earlier?
There are internal and external factors. Regarding the internal factors, there wasn't a political consensus about a cross-border operation inside Syria. Even the ruling AK Party had members with different opinions on launching a military operation to Syria. Syria has been used by many domestic and foreign actors as a means to pressurize the government in a bid to weaken or even overthrow it. Almost all coup attempts and major operations against the ruling party in the past few years have something to do with Syria. The Gezi Park incident, Dec. 17-25 operations, National Intelligence Organization trucks incident, along with Kobane and October 6-7 incidents caused Turkey to lose ground in Syria. Politically speaking, the government's plate was full; and it has been busy tackling one operation after another. Lastly, the July 15 coup attempt revealed that the Gülenists within the army were trying to prevent any operations to Syria. Gülenists in this endeavor even collaborated with the Assad regime, the PKK and DAESH. As the army cleansed itself of Gülenists and their collaboration with anti-Turkish actors in Syria was discovered, the Turkish army became more operational in Syria and public support for an operation against terrorist groups in Syria increased dramatically.
The downed Russian jet also limited Turkey's operational capabilities in Syria as the Turkish jets could not fly over Syrian airspace. In a sense, this made a military operation in Syria dependent on the U.S. air force. Meanwhile the U.S. was enjoying the expansion of the YPG forces in the absence of Turkey. The normalization with Russia paved the way for an operation by Turkey with its own military capabilities and without U.S. involvement. Euphrates Shield started when both domestic and external factors became conducive to launch such an extensive military operation.