Assad’s and Erdogan’s high-risk gambit in northern Syria

(File photo: Jordan News)

Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Turkey may be a few days away from launching one of the biggest ground offensives in northern Syria since it first ventured into its war-torn neighbor in 2016. Saturday night, its air force struck Kurdish targets suspected to belong to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), PYD People’s Defense Units (YPG), and Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK).The attacks were confirmed by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well as Turkish defense ministry. Among the casualties were Syrian regime soldiers. Parts of Syria’s long northern and eastern borders are under regime control.اضافة اعلان

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria and Iraq, dubbed “Operation Claw-Sword” was not limited to just an air campaign, and discussions would be held on the involvement of ground forces. Erdogan has been threatening such land intervention since June, but had to step back under US pressure. Washington described the situation in Syria’s north as “difficult” while the self-administration of northern and eastern Syria warned of a long war and called for unity.

Turkey’s latest strikes, which included those in northern Iraq, came a week after a deadly terrorist explosion in Istanbul was blamed on the PKK. Ankara is yet to provide hard evidence of that involvement. But it seems the attack had given Erdogan the excuse to revive his plans to send more troops into northern Syria to create a buffer zone and strike Kurdish militias. By doing so, he risks clashing with the Americans, who have ground troops in the oil-rich regions of eastern Syria and their Kurdish allies, the SDF. But more importantly, he may destroy efforts to reconcile with the Assad regime.

In September, various media sources reported that a series of meetings had taken place between Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs in Damascus. The meetings were said to have taken place at the urging of the Russians, whose attention was now focused on their military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow wanted its two allies to reach an agreement that would bolster Russia’s gains in Syria while accelerating a political solution in this Arab country.
Erdogan’s is a high-stake game, but the onus is on Syria’s president to take the initiative and resume talks with the Kurds, as well as with his political opponents.
Erdogan had hinted that he was not discounting a meeting with Assad and this week he said that he would seek to normalize ties with Syria and Egypt following next June’s key elections in Turkey.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has become a game changer for Syria and its decade-long crisis. The Syrian regime has relied on Russia’s military intervention in 2015 to tip the balance in its favor as it battled rebel groups. At one point, with the US entrenched in the Kurdish oil-rich east, and Turkey in control of the north, including the Idlib enclave, a stalemate settled in and the regime seemed content with keeping things as they were for the time being. But the tense equilibrium is changing, with Russia directing its attention to a protracted war in Ukraine.

The same can be said about Assad’s Iranian backers. The Iranian uprising, which erupted more than two months ago, is not subsiding anytime soon, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is now completely focused on crushing what is becoming a serious threat to the Islamic Republic.

Erdogan has played his cards well since the Russians staggered into Ukraine. He has kept in close touch with beleaguered Vladimir Putin while offering himself as an honest broker between the West and Russia. But he kept his territorial ambitions in northern Syria alive and now he sees an opportunity to carry them out. Whether he, too, would end up overreaching, as Putin did in Ukraine, remains to be seen. To think he can destroy the PKK and other Kurdish groups in one speedy ground operation is a high-risk gambit.

Assad cannot believe that the status quo is sustainable. It is not. Before Russian forces marched into Ukraine, he had the luxury of derailing political initiatives aimed at forcing him to cough up concessions to his political foes that would weaken his grip or even set a deadline for his iron-fist rule. But now his Russian backers are engaged elsewhere, and Iran’s presence in Syria has become a liability, with Israel having a free hand in striking targets all over the country. The Syrian economy is in tatters and now Turkey is solidifying its role as a major player in Syria’s future.

Meanwhile, it is not clear yet what Washington’s response will be if Turkey does launch a ground offensive across the Syria border and into areas where its own troops are lodged.

Erdogan’s is a high-stake game, but the onus is on Syria’s president to take the initiative and resume talks with the Kurds, as well as with his political opponents. With Russian backing in peril, maybe the time has come for him to square the circles and put something on the table for change.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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