SANLIURFA, Turkey – Confused and contradictory messages from Donald Trump’s White House about the Turkish offensive in Syria could help Bashar al-Assad recoup the country’s territory and emerge from the brutal, eight-year war victorious.
On paper, the regime of Syria’s once-embattled leader and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could not be more at odds.
Ankara has become the principal foreign backer of Syria’s armed opposition groups, which still claim to be the torch-bearers of a popular revolution that has since been sequestered Islamism.
Some of those rebel factions are once again fighting alongside Turkey in northern Syria in an operation launched 9 October to wrest a swath of territory from the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The incursion looks as though it is about to fail.
Erdogan has made it clear that, in his vision for Syria, there is no place for the YPG-led political project to establish an autonomous Kurdish region along the border with Turkey.
Although he insists that there is room for Kurds as an ethnic group, he contradicts himself by announcing – repeatedly and in detail – that he plans to settle between one and two million Syrian refugees on the strip of land he intends to control.
The 32-kilometer deep territory he is eyeing up would include almost all of the land inhabited by Syrian Kurds, where the YPG-associated Democratic Union Party (PYD) has in recent years established functioning de facto government.
Settling refugees from Aleppo, Hama and Homs there would repeat the democratic engineering started by Hafez Al Assad, Bashar’s father, which was to replace the Kurdish population with Arabs to chip away at the Kurdish territory sandwiched along the border.
Withdrawal was therefore not an option for the Kurdish militias, it would have meant giving up, for generations, what they consider their land.
Standing firm and resisting was not an option either and would have resulted in the same fate, only with more blood spilt.
Resorting to Assad was the only alternative to the Kurds in this situation.
For Assad, regaining control of the areas under YPG control without firing a single bullet is a huge leap in his bid to re-establish himself as Syria’s legitimate ruler, eight years and hundreds of thousands of bodies later.
At the moment, its seems unlikely that the regular Turkish and Syrian armies will enter into military conflict – in such a case, Russian President Vladimir Putin would surely come to the aid of Assad, and Erdogan can ill afford another round of Russian sanctions, the likes of which crippled the Turkish economy in 2016.
Then why did Putin give Turkey the green light, just as he did in the Kurdish region of Afrin in 2018?
It may be a strategy: without the sustained artillery of the Turkish Army, the YPG would have posed a serious stumbling block for Assad’s hegemony and the longer it takes the regime’s tanks to reach the north, the easier it will be for Damascus to recover the territory of Rojava – Syrian Kurdistan – without coming across Kurdish resistance.
Faced with an Assad backed by Putin’s military and diplomatic support, Erdogan would only have to present his military operation as a success. After all, it was about “eliminating the terrorist threat on the southern border,” a reference to the Kurdish administration.
However, it is not clear that Ankara thought things would develop this way.
Although Erdogan has always insisted he respects Syria’s territorial integrity, his incursion into Aleppo province in 2016, capturing land from the Islamic State terror organization using allied Syrian rebel groups, indicates he is there to stay.
There, Turkish authorities not only provide basic services – water, electricity, telecommunications, mail, etc. – they have also announced the creation of several campuses linked to a Turkish university, an investment that only makes sense if Ankara foresees a medium or long-term diplomatic solution that puts some Turkish-backed opposition figures in a position of power.
The decision to change the name of the Free Syrian Army, a diverse variety of brigades of militiamen and mercenaries allied to Turkey, to the somewhat brazen Syrian National Army, appears to be an attempt to apply a lick of legitimacy to form of Turkish protectorate in northern Syria.
But if Assad managed to take back the Kurdish northeast of the country, then it may not be so long until Erdogan has to sign a peace treaty with someone he once called “genocidal” and a “murder” after almost a decade of geopolitical adventure in Syria, where the civilian population has paid the highest price.