Erdogan 'open to working with Assad' against Syrian-Kurds

Erdogan 'open to working with Assad' against Syrian-Kurds
Analysis: Continued US support for Kurds on the other side of the Turkish border will likely push Ankara to deal with Damascus, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
06 December, 2017
Turkey sees Syrian Kurds as a cross-border threat [Getty]

"The door of politics is always open until the last moment," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said, regarding the possibility of ad-hoc coordination between Ankara and Damascus.

While such cooperation with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) may not actually materialise, Erdogan clarified there was "no such situation at the moment".

There are, instead, plenty of diverging interests between the Turkish president and his former arch-enemy when it comes to this Syrian Kurdish group.

The Turkish president has for years expressed frustration with the US for supporting the YPG - through the YPG-led Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition - against the Islamic State group, invariably arguing the YPG was no different than the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been proscribed by Turkey.

One "terrorist" group cannot feasibly be used against another, argues Ankara.

While the Trump administration recently promised Washington would no longer arm the YPG, the Kurdish group is still receiving equipment from Washington and the Americans appear set to retain their military forces in Kurdish-held areas of Syria for the foreseeable future.

When the US intervened in Syria against IS... Ankara was furious, arguing that US forces should also have put Assad in their crosshairs

For years Erdogan called for the ousting of Assad. The growing autonomy of Kurdish-held areas on northern Syria, however, has in recent years eclipsed his opposition to the regime in Damascus. Erdogan has essentially discarded his prior determination to depose Assad, after the Russian military intervention essentially decimated the opposition along with any realistic chance of regime change.

When the US intervened in Syria against IS, in September 2014, and, shortly thereafter, began supporting the YPG against IS, Ankara was furious, arguing that US forces should also have put Assad in their crosshairs. That never happened.

Turkish efforts to get the US to assemble a new fighting force of Syrians to combat IS (the so-called "train and equip" programme) and later sideline the SDF/YPG in the Raqqa operation, in favour of an American-Turkish military attack, failed - as the US threw its lot in with the Kurdish-led group to defeat IS.

Since the summer Turkey has been preparing to attack the YPG in its isolated northwestern Afrin canton. It struck an agreement with the Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group in Idlib province to send in forces to further encircle and cut off that territory. As the war against IS winds down, Erdogan will likely review other options to put pressure on the YPG elsewhere.

Turkey is concerned about the growing autonomy of the three Kurdish-controlled cantons in northern Syria

Now that he has discontinued efforts to support Assad's remaining opponents and struck a rapprochement with Russia - following the tense fallout from the November 2015 Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber plane on its border with Syria - ad-hoc coordination with Assad against the YPG makes a lot of sense from Ankara's perspective.

"Turkey has largely stopped arming the Syria rebel factions and has moved away from its early position that Assad must go," Professor Joshua Landis told The New Arab.

"Erdogan has brought Turkey into Russia's orbit in order to counter the US decision to help Syria's Kurds train, arm and finance its YPG forces," he added. "In order to limit the growth of Kurdish power in Syria, Turkey will have to cooperate with Assad and Russia."

In the same Hurriyet interview in which Erdogan left the possibility of working with Assad against the YPG open, he also complained that the US was providing the YPG "not only with arms but also with personnel", in reference to the American troops that have helped the SDF/YPG against IS.

Not only is this not the first time he has complained about this troop presence in Syria but it's not even the first time in recent weeks. After US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed there was no military solution to the Syrian conflict, Erdogan lambasted them.

"If a military solution is out of the question, then those who say this should pull their troops out… and steps for a political solution should be taken," he declared.

If the US decides to stay in Syria in order to build up the Kurds, both Turkey and Assad will be driven closer together

Assad is content with retaining a Russian military force in Syria - Moscow has a deal with Damascus to keep its naval depot and airbase in Latakia for another 49 years - but opposes the American and Turkish troop presence in his country. Nevertheless, both Assad and Erdogan are uncomfortable with the US troop presence in Syria and Washington's continued support to the SDF/YPG.  

"If the US decides to stay in Syria in order to build up the Kurds, both Turkey and Assad will be driven closer together in order to drive out America and limit the damage that Kurdish autonomy will do to both their countries," Landis anticipated. "The Kurds now control Lake Assad, most of Syria's major producing oil and gas fields, and much of its best agricultural lands."

In September, the US-backed SDF made a major push into Deir az-Zour to seize many of these oilfields, including Syria's biggest, from IS. The SDF even told Damascus - which was simultaneously advancing with Russian support into the same province - not to cross over to the east bank of the Euphrates river.

The SDF/YPG plan to administer the oil-rich swathes of the province they've seized from IS with their Deir az-Zour Military Council, something opposed by both Ankara and Damascus.

"Assad and Turkey are likely to play a long game against the US, figuring that Washington will not want to be embroiled in an expensive and open-ended nation-building project in northeast Syria," Landis concluded.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon