Paul Iddon
Nov 08 2018

From Manbij to Idlib: Turkey's deal-making in Syria

In the past five months Turkey has made Syria deals with both the United States and the Russian Federation to prevent conflict from breaking out in two contentious flash points in the country's north.

First in June, Turkey took the first step with the United States to resolve a dispute over the small northwestern Syrian Arab city of Manbij. In May 2016, Turkey agreed not to oppose a U.S.-backed operation against Islamic State (ISIS) in that city. U.S. forces supported an offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish fighting-force created and essentially dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), Turkey's primary adversary in Syria.

In return for its acquiescence Turkey got assurances from the United States that only Arab fighters in the SDF would remain in Manbij after ISIS, not any members of the YPG. Up until that point Turkey's red line in northwest Syria was any YPG presence west of the River Euphrates.

Turkey still argues that the United States has not lived up to its promise and has threatened numerous times since the summer of 2016 to militarily remove the YPG. The United States sent troops of its own to Manbij in March 2017 to prevent Turkey's Syrian militia proxies from clashing with the YPG.

The June deal with Turkey seeks to resolve these tensions. Months in the making, an initiative by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Washington plans to resolve this impasse through joint patrols between American and Turkish troops in the vicinity of the city. U.S. troops have successfully trained their Turkish counterparts for such patrols, which finally began at the beginning of this month. However, it is unclear if this will lead to a YPG withdrawal from Manbij anytime soon.

As combined joint patrols began, Turkey simultaneously began shelling YPG positions in northeast Syria, potentially risking a broader war with the group in that part of Syria, something that could negatively affect the Manbij roadmap.

“We are resolved to turn our attention to the east of the Euphrates, from where Turkey is being threatened, rather than seeing our time wasted in Manbij,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared late last month.

Consequently, only time will tell if the Manbij roadmap will actually go anywhere and if Turkey can successfully arrange a YPG withdrawal from that strategically important area through its deal with Washington.

In September, a mere two months after beginning the Manbij roadmap, Turkey made another deal with Russia in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib. Ankara strongly opposed a Syrian government offensive against that province, the only one that remains outside President Bashar Assad’s control, since it would have caused a dire humanitarian crisis and likely have resulted in millions more Syrians fleeing over the border into Turkey.

Consequently, Turkey reached a deal with the Russians to stave off that undesirable outcome. Both countries worked to establish a demilitarised zone in Idlib to contain the jihadist Haya't Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, the most powerful and violent group in Idlib. While not all heavy weapons were withdrawn from the declared zone Russian President Vladimir Putin said Turkey was living up to its obligation under the agreement. The Syrian government, which was not involved in the deal, argued that the continued presence of heavy weapons in that area was “an indicator of Turkey's unwillingness to fulfil its obligations”.

While time will ultimately tell how successful each respective deal is Ankara's recent moves may indicate it is still a significant player in helping to influence events on the ground in these two areas. That said, both agreements stand on volatile ground.

“The two agreements are different,” The Atlantic Council's Aaron Stein told Ahval.

“In Idlib, Turkey has thus far prevented a regime offensive, albeit largely due to Russian support for ongoing Turkish efforts to de-marble the opposition,” he said.

“In Manbij, the situation is unclear. Turkey is using military action near Manbij to try and win more concessions from the United States,” he said, referring to recent Turkish attacks on YPG forces east of the Euphrates.

Professor Joshua Landis agreed that Turkey was a major player in northern Syria today, but pointed to the unstable nature of the Idlib deal.

“Both Assad and the Russians insist it is a temporary deal that must lead to the disarming and apprehension of the jihadists as well as the restoration of Syrian sovereignty,” Landis said.

European powers have recently backed Ankara in calling for a permanent ceasefire in Idlib.

“They are both worried about further refugee flows into Europe and even more worried that the Idlib jihadists could be driven into Anatolia and perhaps into Europe as well,” he said. “They would prefer them to remain in Idlib, which is exactly what Syria and Russia insist cannot happen.”

Landis said the Manbij deal was “dependent on America's military might”.

“Turkey is rattling its sword, insisting that the YPG must be eradicated from northern Syria and that the U.S. must stop arming and training its fighters,” he said. “In short, the Turkish and America controlled parts of Syria are anything but stable.”

Abdulla Hawez, an independent analyst on Middle East affairs, said the deals were for similar purposes but were different in everything aside from the uncertainty surrounding their future.

“The deal with Russia on Idlib seems to have been more effective and clear so far, mostly because Russian decision making is central, similar to Turkey's, and both leaders of Russia and Turkey met and managed to be decisive,” Hawez said. “Although we don’t know the future of Idlib deal at least both Turkey and Russia have agreed for now and have a clear short-term roadmap.”

Hawez contrasts this directly with the Manbij deal, dubbing it “unclear and indecisive, partially given the structure of U.S. decision-making is far more complicated.”

“We have seen that Turkey and U.S. have been meeting at ministerial levels multiple times until they managed to reach an agreement for joint patrol, even then it took months until that actually happened,” he said.

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on the Middle East, said the Idlib deal as “partially successful, but satisfactory for the time being for Russia.”

“This allows the deal to stay still in force,” he said.

Has pointed out that some heavy weapons were successfully removed from the designated demilitarised zone and said some of the radical militants had also silently vacated it. While promising, Has said, the more dangerous militant groups in Idlib, particularly HTS, had “failed to meet the October 15 deadline and did not comply with the deal”.

Also, the important M4 and M5 highways that link Syria's coastal province of Latakia - home to Assad’s Alawite minority and Russia's airbase in Syria - to the main northern city of Aleppo remain closed to traffic. If Turkey could safely reopen those roads before the end of the year it might bode well for the long-term success of the Idlib deal.

“Probably Moscow is now preferring to look forward to see what Ankara can do … to force those groups to leave the buffer zone in Idlib,” Has said.

The Moscow-based analyst does not think the current ceasefire would become a permanent arrangement. While it did bring about a decrease in the number of registered ceasefire violations in Idlib compared with the period before the deal, he said violations had begun to increase again.

“Also, as Putin emphasised once again at the Istanbul summit of Turkish, Russian, German and French leaders, that the Kremlin sees the Idlib deal as temporary and is ready to support the Syrian army to fight against militant groups there if the violations continue,” Has said. “It seems that Moscow is just waiting for a convenient time for the Idlib operation, nothing more.”

Hawez anticipates that given the high density of anti-Assad elements in Idlib – since it is the last significant region the government's armed opponents in the country still controls – the province “will not be taken back by Syrian regime without a prior political settlement between Russia and Turkey”.

Similarly, he does not believe that the SDF/YPG can successfully be removed from northeast Syria without a political settlement either since the United States had decided to retain its troop presence there, which gives the SDF considerable leverage to attain a certain level of autonomy.

These areas constitute about one-third of Syria, albeit sparsely populated parts of the country, which are “important because they are the food basket of the remaining areas of Syria outside regime control and they are oil and gas rich”.

Turkey vehemently opposes Syrian Kurdish autonomy or self-rule in these areas.  

Ultimately, Hawez identifies Turkey as “a major player in influencing the outcome of the Syrian civil war, especially in the northern parts”, citing both its lengthy land border with Syria and its military power. Consequently, “it is only natural for it to be a major player in this war, especially given the fact that YPG has a direct link with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), which has been in war with the Turkish state since the 1980s.”

“So, the outcome of the Syrian civil war is an existential matter for Turkey and I think both Russia and U.S. understand this,” he said.

Regarding the Idlib deal Has does not see how it is in Turkey's interest to have pursued it.

“In my opinion, reaching such an agreement, Ankara willingly or unintentionally admitted to import the terror from Idlib and Syria in general into Turkish territory,” he said.

Instead, he reasoned, Turkey “should have forced those groups to lay down their arms, cut off their access to any logistic support, and maybe opened a way for a joint and professionally organised operation, which would have minimised the negative results of any possible humanitarian crisis.”

Rather than pursuing this, in Has's view, the more logical course of action, the “Turkish leadership chose a different, complicated and more destructive, in the long run, option.”

“What Ankara will do with these militant groups in the future is unclear,” he said. “Some of them will highly likely pass through Turkey.”

Has predicted that if the deal were a success Ankara would likely use some of the groups evacuated from Idlib in “military operations east of the River Euphrates, which seems to me quite risky.”

“Why the Turkish leadership reached such an agreement in Sochi with Russians is still a question mark,” he said. “While the negotiations on political transit process and constitutional reforms are intensely talked nowadays, Turkey is risking exhausting itself militarily, which may harm its role in shaping the future of Syria around the negotiations table.”

“In that sense, if the deal works successfully, Turkey is not going to be a major player in Syria, but rather becomes a hostage of the political ambitions of its own leadership,” he said.