ISTANBUL — The Russian-American agreement on a partial cease fire in Syria, hailed by President Vladimir Putin as a “real chance” to stop the war, got a wary welcome this week in Turkey, whose government fears that Moscow will exploit the deal and continue with its bombing campaign to redraw the battlefield of Syria in favor of Bashar Assad’s regime.
It’s not only distrust of Russia, which according to Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus has completed 8,000 sorties since October, nine-tenths of them directed against the moderate opposition and civilian targets, and only a tenth against the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Adding to doubts about Moscow’s intentions in Syria is the fact that the accord goes into effect on Saturday, more than two weeks after the U.S. and Russia announced there would be a cessation of hostilities. “Apparently the Russians had some things to do on the ground,” said a senior Turkish official.
Then there’s the loophole that allows Russia — or the U.S.-led coalition — to continue bombing ISIL and Jabhat al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate, whose fighters are mixed with moderate rebels in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province.
And, above all, the skepticism about the cease-fire deal reflects the Turkish ruling establishment’s loss of confidence in Moscow’s negotiating partner in Syria — Washington. Officials in Ankara say they doubt the U.S. has the political will to see that this or any other agreement is upheld.
After nearly five years of watching Washington fumble the Syria crisis, Turkish officials say they are giving up on the Obama administration and will await its successor to craft a strategy for sorting out the Middle East’s expanding conflict.
Echoes of 1914
Since the beginning of Russia’s air campaign on September 30, Syria’s low-intensity conflict has morphed into a high-stakes geopolitical contest. From the Turkish perspective, Washington silently stood by as rebel groups, backed by the U.S., Turkey and other allies were ousted from vital locations by Assad’s Russian-backed forces. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were sent fleeing their homes.
The relentless Russian bombing of cities, towns, villages and farms to prop up the Assad regime’s tenuous hold on power has killed at least 1,500 civilians, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR). In February alone, the bombardment displaced more than 75,000 civilians in the war-wrecked country, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
The deliberate destruction of health facilities — 27 since October by SNHR’s count — schools, markets, camps for the displaced, even olive groves, has driven an enormous number of refugees into makeshift tent camps on Turkey’s border. The border has now been closed to all but the sick and wounded.
Were Ankara to reopen it, another surge of refugees would flow in, many of them heading to the coast to find boats and rafts that would take them to Greece and then onward.
In Syria itself, the array of foreign and Syrian fighters now under Russian and Iranian direction — Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, Afghan Hazaras and a Syrian Kurdish militia — are in a position to close all exits to Turkey and block Aleppo, where 250,000 people reside in rebel-held territory, leading possibly to siege, starvation or even genocide.
And with so many actors on the battlefield cloaking their true intentions while issuing misleading or contradictory statements, many observers see a parallel to 1914, with any number of opportunities for a minor mistake triggering a war between Russia and Turkey.
That moment seemed close in mid-February. A Kurdish militia that the U.S. had supported in battles against Islamic extremists switched patrons, and backed by Russian warplanes captured an airbase, a strategic town and several villages and was heading towards the border town of Azaz.
In a brazen advance, the People’s Protection Units or YPG not only dealt a major blow to Western- and Turkey-backed rebels that were safeguarding a supply route from Aleppo to Turkey, but pressed their own stated goal in the war: To unite separated Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria into a single unit, the nucleus of what its parent organization in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, views as a future Kurdish state to be carved out of Syria and Turkey.
Ankara swiftly demanded the YPG abandon the territory it had claimed and began shelling the militia across the international border.
The U.S. State Department’s evenhanded response — admonishing both Turkey and the YPG and calling on both to back off — infuriated Ankara. “The only thing we expect from our U.S. ally is to support Turkey, with no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts,’” snapped Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on February 20.
The YPG halted its advance on Azaz, but it’s unclear for how long.
The increasingly bitter tone of the dispute with Washington — President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at one point, “Am I your ally, or are the ‘terrorists’ in Kobani?” in a reference to the YPG’s stronghold — shows how out of synch the two NATO allies have become.
President Obama’s proclivity to disengage from the Arab world, his tilt towards Iran (the main regional rival for U.S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and his announced “pivot” towards Asia are no doubt factors in the falling out with Ankara.
Also a factor is Obama’s broader goal to avoid entanglement in another Middle East conflict, a reflection of the popular revulsion to his predecessor’s war in Iraq.
Whatever the reason, U.S. policy has been marked by frequent shifts in tackling Syria.
‘Change your attitude to Russians’
Instead of focusing on the carnage the Assad regime has inflicted on Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, and developing a plan to protect the population and replace the president in Damascus, the Obama administration single-mindedly adapted the goal of fighting ISIL, which Turkey claims is fostered and protected by the regime in Damascus.
America’s alliance with a Kurdish militia that Turkey views as a threat to its territorial integrity and Washington’s daily praise of the fighters’ prowess on the ground may have encouraged the YPG to use the war in Syria to carve out a Kurdish state. The biggest strategic error in Turkey’s view was the U.S. refusal to step up support for Arab opponents of the Assad regime after the Russian intervention on the side of government forces.
As far as Turks are concerned, the aim of U.S. diplomacy should be to counter Russian expansionism, not to offer Moscow a permanent grip on the region. Turks view the U.S. drive for a cease-fire and the opening of peace talks as misguided. The gambit may play with U.S. public opinion, but it cannot end the war after Russia upended the battlefield unless the U.S. has the will to rebalance it, officials say.
“The Russian plan is very obvious. It is barbaric: to finish the opposition,” said one senior Turkish official. “At the end of the day they want to show the world, look there is the regime and there is Daesh,” he said, using the pejorative Arabic acronym. As for U.S. motives, Washington appears to “want to create a process to show there is a process,” said the official.
“We are trying to understand what the Americans are trying to do,” said the official, who asked to speak anonymously so he could be more frank.
Another official spoke even more bluntly, suggesting the Obama administration was pursuing a course of appeasement. Ankara’s message to Washington is that Russia has carried out devastating airstrikes “thanks to your consent,” said this official. And the Turkish admonition is that if the U.S. wants a political solution in Syria, “You need to change your attitude toward the Russians.”
Officials in Turkey, which last year saw a long truce with the PKK end, bitterly criticized U.S. support of the YPG. Their message was: “What you are doing is not reasonable or consistent, nor compatible with alliance relations. You cannot continue doing this.”
But the U.S. response is “nothing much,” the official said. “They try to evade the conversation.” That apparently “is the current policy line of the Americans up to the elections.” In response, Turkish policy will be focused on “damage control,” the official said.
U.S. officials tell their Turkish counterparts that they are powerless to rein in the YPG, this official added. “They say, ‘We are telling them to withdraw from the areas they took,’ and they say, ‘they don’t listen to us.’”
A change in the U.S. position seems unlikely. On the rare occasions that he speaks about Syria, President Obama avoids harsh criticism of Russia and uses the language of friendly persuasion. “If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort that we’ve been seeing, I think it’s fair to say that you’re not going to see any take-up by the opposition,” he told reporters in California on February 16, referring to the peace negotiations in Geneva.
When Russian aircraft destroyed a hospital in Maarat al Numan on February 15, the U.S., unlike Britain and France, refused to call it a war crime. Médecins Sans Frontières, the French NGO that supported the hospital, said four air-to-ground missiles fired in two salvoes destroyed the hospital, with a precision that military observers said only Russians are capable of showing.
The State Department waffled about the violation of humanitarian law. “There’s a very precise legal definition of what constitutes war crimes. I’m not going to get into that from the podium,” said spokesman Mark Toner. “What I will say is it’s absolutely horrific what they’ve done and they need to stop.”
He also refused to confirm that the YPG had advanced thanks to battlefield collaboration with Russia. “We’ve seen no connection whatsoever,” Toner told reporters in Washington. Nor would he affirm that the YPG also receives support from the government of Syria, which has publicly acknowledged doing just that. “No comment,” he said.
Syria’s breakdown, Turkish complicity
The credibility gap in official U.S. pronouncements on Syria is not new. That makes it a lot more difficult to repair U.S.-Turkish relations.
Turkey has made its share of mistakes in the Syria crisis. When the U.S. restricted its aid to rebel forces to allow them to survive but not topple the Assad regime,
Turkey allowed Islamic radicals to fill the vacuum — indeed it permitted volunteers to cross Turkish territory into Syria until the middle of 2015.
Other governments in the region were baffled by Turkey’s failure to craft its own strategy for defeating ISIL extremists, whose self-styled capital Raqqa is just 60 miles south of the Turkish border. Ankara’s handling of the YPG has at times been maladroit, and Erdoğan’s reliance on speechmaking has done little to sell its position to the West.
On the whole, however, Turkey proceeded with caution, generously hosting 2.6 million Syrian refugees without outside help and providing enormous but unpublicized help to internally displaced Syrians living just inside the Syrian border.
Turkish officials rattle their sabers regularly and just last week said they’re willing to send ground troops into Syria, but there’s always the caveat that it has to be with the agreement and support of the United States.
“A military ground operation in Syria by Turkey and Saudi Arabia is not on the agenda and any such move would need to involve all countries in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Monday.
“Turkey is determined not to follow an adventurous path,” said a senior official. “We do not have crazy plans.”
In Turkish eyes, U.S. mistakes make up a catalog of avoidance — first America allowed a vacuum to take hold and then empowered rogue actors, Iran and Russia, to fill it.
Turkish officials noted the U.S. silence as the Assad regime began dropping indiscriminate barrel bombs on civilians in Aleppo and then the entire country. They chafed at Washington’s refusal to provide the rebels air defense needed to protect the civilian population. Arms supplied to moderate rebel forces have been dispensed to individual commanders, effectively creating local warlords rather than a staff structure that can respond to changes on the battlefield, such as countering the rise of ISIL.
Obama’s emphasis on fighting ISIL shifted world attention from the cause of the problems, the Assad regime, to one of the symptoms, and the empowering of a Kurdish militia whose aim is to redraw the map of Syria.
Then there was Obama’s disastrous $500 million experiment to “train and equip” a Syrian force that would fight only the ISIL militants and not the Assad regime. Perhaps the most galling of all the U.S. policy decisions for Turkey was the refusal to establish a no-fly zone inside Syria, which could have enabled millions of Syrians to stay in their own country.
“Oh America. You did not say ‘yes’ to a ‘no-fly zone.’ Now the Russian planes are running wild over there, and thousands and tens of thousands of victims are dying,” Erdoğan said last week. “Weren’t we coalition forces? Weren’t we to act together?”