The Syrian civil war, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and uprooted almost half its population, will enter its 10th year in March. The conflict has since evolved into a complex issue involving several terrorist groups and foreign powers. Now, with a new U.S. administration whose Syria policy remains unclear in office, actors on the ground have been revising their positions while the number of terrorist attacks has increased substantially.
“With the incoming of the Joe Biden administration, we see that actors in Syria have started to revise their positions,” Can Acun, a foreign policy expert at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), told Daily Sabah. “Especially when we look at the PKK’s Syrian wing, the YPG, and the PYD’s moves, we observe that they have adopted a far more aggressive stance.”
Saying that the YPG has great expectations from the new U.S. administration and assumes engagement will strengthen, Acun pointed out that the terrorist group takes steps to extend its field of influence and acts on its own initiative, taking courage from the new administration.
“Terrorist attacks have gained momentum in areas controlled by Turkey,” Acun said, indicating that one reason for this is a new U.S. administration that includes names close to the terrorist group.
Car bombs killed at least 20 people last week in two separate incidents in terrorist attacks that took place in Syria’s northern Azaz, al-Bab and Afrin provinces. Moreover, an improvised explosive device (IED) strapped to a motorcycle exploded, killing two civilians and wounding two more on Jan. 26 in the northern Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, controlled by the Syrian opposition, while on Jan. 17 a bomb-laden vehicle exploded again in Azaz, killing at least one civilian and wounding six others. Two weeks before that another car bomb killed at least five near a vegetable market in Ras al-Ain.
Though the U.S. condemned the trio of terrorist attacks last week, Washington failed to make any reference to the terrorists or review its relations with the group despite the fact that local security forces have blamed the YPG for the deadly assaults.
Security sources speaking to Daily Sabah on the condition of anonymity stressed that the recent increase in terrorist attacks in regions controlled by Turkey and the Syrian National Army (SNA) were attempts at eroding trust to "prove" that Turkey and the SNA lack the ability to provide security in these areas.
Likewise, Acun reiterated that the YPG aims to establish an autonomous administration east of the Euphrates and said that the terrorist group adopted the strategy of wearing out and thereby driving out Turkey from areas in Syria’s north.
“The YPG is engaging in efforts to prevent the establishment of stability in areas controlled by Turkey, to show that their model of administration is more superior while trying to define Ankara as an ‘occupational force’ there,” Acun added.
He also pointed to the fact that apart from attacks on the Syrian opposition and Turkey, there has also been growing tension between the YPG and the Bashar Assad regime.
YPG forces control a large part of the northeast of the war-torn country, but regime forces are also present there, including in the main regional cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli. Damascus and the YPG have mostly coexisted during nearly a decade of conflict, yet in recent weeks, tensions have risen with each side accusing the other of imposing steep levies or restricting the movement of goods to areas under their respective control. At least one Syrian regime security member was killed in Hassakeh amid ongoing tensions.
On the other side, terrorist leader Ferhat Abdi Şahin, code-named "Mazloum Kobani," confirmed that tensions are high between the organization and the regime, while speaking to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Al Arabiya-linked Al-Hadath TV last week.
He also stated that the YPG will prepare a “joint program” with the administration of newly elected Biden, signaling that Washington is eager to continue its trend of supporting terrorist forces in the region.
Şahin, a notorious terrorist on Turkey’s most wanted terrorists list, said the election of Biden gives him “more hope to find a realistic solution to the Syrian crisis.” He also noted that they continue to coordinate with Russia and that it is necessary to always keep a balance in their relations with Washington and Moscow.
Constrained by domestic problems brought on by bad management of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout, the Biden administration will have its hands full; yet the newly elected president also pledged to revive American global leadership using the words “America is back” that could lead to a re-engagement of the Syria file after former president Donald Trump minimized U.S. forces in the war-ravaged country to end Washington’s “endless wars.”
The Syrian war will have a significant role in the context of Turkey-U.S. relations in the upcoming period as U.S. support for the YPG in Syria has become a point of contention in bilateral ties between Ankara and Washington. Turkish officials have recently voiced that Ankara expects the U.S. to give up on its cooperation with the terrorist group as the Biden administration took office with the aim of turning a new page in bilateral relations.
“I think that the Biden administration’s Syria policy, including a special focus on the YPG, is not going to change much,” Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. diplomat and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Daily Sabah.
Similarly signaling no change in its policy toward cooperating with the terrorist group, U.S. envoy to Turkey David Satterfield on Friday told reporters that his country's position regarding the YPG has not changed, noting that they will continue to work with the organization in northeast Syria “to confront the threat posed by Daesh.”
Biden had harshly criticized Trump’s decision of withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Syria and deemed it a “betrayal” of the YPG and Trump as a “complete failure.”
“It appears President Biden is going to bring back Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS (Daesh) and everybody knows that it was Brett McGurk who was the architect of the U.S. cooperating with the terrorists YPG,” Bryza said, elaborating that McGurk together with the leadership of the U.S. Central Command, “rebranded the YPG as the Syrian Democratic Forces as an attempt to confuse people in Washington and to hide the real nature of the YPG/PKK.”
Certain appointments by Biden are likely to raise hairs in Ankara, none more so than McGurk's naming to the National Security Council, where he will oversee the Middle East and Africa. McGurk has been an outspoken critic of Turkey's policy on Syria and will play an important role in shaping Washington's relations with Ankara.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in May 2017 bashed McGurk saying: “U.S. envoy for the global coalition against Daesh Brett McGurk is certainly supporting the PKK and the YPG. It would be beneficial if this person changes.”
“That is going to be a source of continued tension,” he stressed.
“Though the new U.S. administration’s Syria policy is still unclear, it is possible that a similar politics to that of the (former President Barack) Obama will emerge considering the new actors chosen by Biden,” Acun stated.
The U.S. primarily partnered with the YPG in northeastern Syria in its fight against the Daesh terrorist group. On the other hand, Turkey strongly opposed the YPG's presence in northern Syria. Ankara has long objected to the U.S.' support for the YPG, a group that poses a threat to Turkey and terrorizes local people, destroying their homes and forcing them to flee.
Under the pretext of fighting Daesh, the U.S. has provided military training and given truckloads of military support to the YPG, despite its NATO ally's security concerns. Underlining that one cannot support one terrorist group to defeat another, Turkey conducted its own counterterrorism operations, over the course of which it has managed to remove a significant number of terrorists from the region.
Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in 2019 to eliminate YPG terrorists from northern Syria east of the Euphrates in order to secure Turkey's borders, aid in the safe return of Syrian refugees and ensure Syria's territorial integrity. The operation aimed to establish a terror-free safe zone for the return of Syrians in the area east of the Euphrates, which was controlled by the U.S.-backed YPG terrorists at the time.
Turkey has long pointed to the PKK's tactic of changing names as a way of offsetting international denunciation against the group.
Locals in YPG-controlled areas have long suffered from its atrocities. The terrorist organization has a lengthy record of human rights abuses, ranging from kidnappings, recruiting child soldiers, torture, ethnic cleansing and being responsible for the forced displacement in Syria.
Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in his article published in Foreign Affairs on Jan. 25 said that Washington tried to use military force and financial pressure to compel Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to accept an autonomous zone for the YPG in the country’s northeast.
“Under U.S. supervision, that region developed into a semistate with its own army, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and an entrenched bureaucracy – dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD),” he stated, criticizing U.S. strategy in Syria and advocating that the U.S. should stop supporting the terrorist organization and leave the fight against Daesh to Turkey and Russia, which would end the YPG’s source of legitimacy and usefulness for the U.S.
Another statement that could signal a course correction in Washington’s Syria file were the words of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledging that the U.S.’ Syria policy was a failure last May, while speaking with CBS news.
“We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees,” Blinken said.
With Biden seeking to revitalize alliances, diplomacy and restore Washington’s place in the international arena, he will face new balances in Syria since he was last in office as vice president in 2016; the U.S. has been merely an observer in the conflict for years, while Russia and Iran’s footprint in the conflict has grown.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signaled at the end of 2020, that 2021 will be a year of foreign policy for Turkey, as he urged the U.S. to start with a clean slate in the new year. However, contact between the new U.S. administration and Ankara has been limited with a phone call between Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın and the U.S.’ new national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, when the U.S.' support for the YPG was on the agenda and the two sides expressed commitment to improving bilateral relations.
Underlining that apart from the Syrian crisis the S-400s will be a serious issue between Turkey and the U.S. that “is going to require tough compromise on both sides,” Bryza underlined that there is also a misperception in Washington that Turkey is collaborating with Russia and Iran as in the Astana process and that this signals Turkey’s desire to move away from the rest of NATO.
He stated that looking at Turkey geographically and considering its closeness to Russia and Iran, Turkey had no choice but to work with these two countries as it did not receive the support it expected from its NATO allies.
“In Washington, there is anger at Turkey for working with Russia and Iran and that is also feeding into the S-400 problem as well,” he added.
“The good news is that Biden understands the region. He understands how important Turkey is geostrategically and in NATO,” Bryza stated, reiterating that Turkey’s new innovative unmanned vehicle technologies and tactics helped thwart an attack by the regime and Russia in Syria’s northwestern Idlib last year that prevented a humanitarian catastrophe.
“That should be of importance for the Biden administration.”
Bryza reiterated that in August 2016, during the visit of then-Vice President Biden to Turkey following the July 15 coup attempt, he stated that he agreed with the Turkish government that the YPG forces needed to be removed east of the Euphrates river in accordance with Turkey’s stated desires.
“The bad news was that when he got back to Washington, Brett McGurk made a public statement that completely contradicted the vice president’s. So, it is going to be messy, it is going to be difficult to get Turkey and the U.S. on the same side with regard to the YPG,” he continued, highlighting that multiple challenges remain.
Bryza said one problem remained – there was no alternative for fighting Daesh other than the YPG. “It is going to be a bumpy road in the beginning.”
Saying that Washington has to wake up under Biden, Bryza stated that the U.S. has to realize how much both have in common in Syria, in keeping Syria together, maintaining its territorial integrity, constraining Russian adventurism, defeating Assad’s brutal regime and developing a political process for a stable Syria and stabilizing Turkey’s border with Syria.
“This is going to take a while,” he concluded.
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