By Mehmet Kıvanç
The Syrian army is beginning to show presence again at the border with Türkiye, from where it had withdrawn in 2012. While Türkiye’s preparations for a military operation are ongoing, the Syrian Armed Forces have sent military contingents to Ayn el Arab (Kobane), Tel Rifat and Manbij. Russia is forcing the YPG to agree to Damascus’ terms, while Türkiye wants to make sure that the terror organization retreats at least 30 km from the border. Damascus on the other side objects to further enlargement of the area controlled by the so-called Syrian National Army. At the same time, Russia and Iran are trying to convince Ankara to solve the problem without another military intervention and thus to enlarge the area controlled by the Syrian Armed Forces.
Türkiye’s military operations in Syria have developed as fruits of very specific circumstances. Except the operation Peace Fountain, all interventions until today have taken place against US objections and indirect approval of Russia. The borders that these two states have drawn together have defined the limits to which the National Syrian Army (formerly Free Syrian Army, FSA) could expand. The operation Peace Fountain for instance was progressing very fast and successfully in 2019, until the United States and Russia interfered and stopped it. It is not wrong to state that political engagements and mistakes have limited what Türkiye’s military capacities could have achieved in the operations in Syria.
Syria wants its borders back
UWI has spoken to a source close to the Syrian security bureaucracy. The Syrian source that asked not be named stated the following:
“Syria wants to force the PYD/YPG out from Tel Rifat, Manbij and Ayn el Arab. The organization was warned to completely turn these areas over to the Syrian Armed Forces in meetings, where the Russian side also participated. The organization responded with proposals that would put Türkiye and Syria against each other. These proposals were not accepted by Damascus. Damascus has no such plan as to defend the border together with the YPG. Damascus had made a similar proposal to the YPG during Türkiye’s operation in Afrin, but the organization had rejected it following orders from Qandil (the PKK headquarters, UWI) and decided to fight. Syria has conveyed very clearly the message to the PYD/YPG that, if they do not retreat, they will left alone with the Turkish Armed Forces. The Syrian Armed Forces want to reestablish control at the Turkish-Syrian border. They are pressuring on the organization to, in a first stance, retreat to 30 km south from the border. Once the organization withdraws from Ayn el Arab, Tel Rifat and Manbij, further pressure will be exercised on it in the other regions.”
Stating that the Syrian Armed Forces’ reinforcements in the named regions continues, the source continued:
“The situation in Tel Rifat, Ayn el Arab and Manbij can change every moment. The circumstances are very different from those in the past years. The US influence in these regions has weakened considerably. The US military focuses on the areas where the oil fields are. Before, the PYD/YPG had undertaken its own kind of false flag operation, rising Syrian flags and hanging posters of Bashar al-Assad at the border. This time, the situation is different. There are really Syrian Armed Forces troops at the Syrian-Turkish border in Ayn el Arab. A first wave of Syrian soldiers arrived here on July 16. A second contingent has not been deployed yet, because the YPG has not fulfilled its promise to retreat 30 km south. A day later, on July 17, air defense systems, police forces and government employees were scheduled to arrive at Ayn el Arab. But as the YPG has not fulfilled its promise yet, this convoy has still not entered the city. Members of the YPG have left the border area and dispersed to the surrounding villages. Syria is pressuring the organization to fulfill Türkiye’s demand of retreating 30 km southwards. If that happens, there will be no need for a Turkish incursion into that area. Damascus at the same time does not want the Turkish-supported FSA elements to gain more ground. The situation in Ayn el Arab can be described thus as follows: At the border the Syrian Armed Forces, in the are behind forces of the YPG, and behind them again the Syrian Armed Forces. The YPG organization is squeezed between two areas. It is trying to resist Damascus’ demands.”
The current situation in Syria
The next episode in the series of Turkish military operations that have gotten their shape according to the stance of Russia and the United States is again on the agenda today under conditions dictated by the Ukraine crisis. In these operations, held under circumstances where Türkiye and Syria had no direct line of communication with each other, Ankara targeted the terror organizations YPG/PKK and ISIS. Fighting at the same time on various fronts, the Syrian government had objected officially to the Turkish interventions. But the withdrawal and local defeat of the ISIS and YPG has indirectly contributed to the Syrian Armed Forces progress in other areas.
Despite continuing heavy domestic problems, Syria is not presenting the picture of a civil war anymore. On the path opened up in the Astana Process, the Syrian Armed Forces have gained control over the bigger cities. Radical groups on the countryside have been sent to the Idlib province with Türkiye’s facilitating role.
In the current situation all areas are under the Syrian government’s control, except Idlib, Tel Rifat and Manbij on the west of the Euphrates river and the area reaching from Rakka to the border city of Albu Kemal. From the Syrian government’s point of view, three areas show problems of sovereignty: Idlib, where the radical groups are entrenched; the areas controlled by the US-supported separatist PYD/YPG; and the territories controlled by the Free Syrian Armey, which has converted itself to the National Syrian Army and is supported by Türkiye. ISIS cells in desert areas constitute another security problem.
Three strategic goals of Damascus have become obvious in the meantime: reaching the border without entering into clashes with Türkiye; preventing the PYD/YPG from becoming a dominant political force without entering into clashes with the US; cleaning Idlib, which has become an ideological education center for radical groups. All these goals converge with the guarantees Ankara delivers concerning Syria’s territorial integrity. But it also needs to be remembered that the existence of Turkish-supported groups opens up maneuver room for the YPG. Damascus has until now resisted all demands for regional autonomy, but the Syrian government not only considers the YPG a violation of territorial integrity but also the local sovereignty established by Türkiye-supported groups. Meanwhile, Ankara has stopped the expansion of the PYD/YPG with military operations. But it’s entering into communication with the Syrian government on the ground of the Astana Process is still waited for.
Although the situation on the field is open to sudden new developments, Damascus does not want to miss the chance to regain control over the Turkish-Syrian borderline. Using Ankara’s view and pressure on terror organizations as a means to regain control over border areas, without entering into clashes with Türkiye will, undoubtedly, be an important success for Damascus. Similarly, a window of opportunity has opened up in front of Türkiye to achieve a strategic gain without entering into clashes. The expelling of the terror organization from Ayn el Arab, Tel Rifat and Manbij can provide an example for other areas too. Such a loss of control and area, without even finding the ground for a fight, can lead to a situation where the YPG/PYD crushes down from town to town like domino stones. With the circumstances and conditions evolving into that direction, that diplomatic direct contact between Ankara and Damascus becomes even more important.