During the fall of 2019, northern Syria once again emerged in the Middle Eastern agenda as a contentious area and knot of contradictions capable of potentially breaking the period of relative calm in the Syrian conflict.
Operation Peace Spring launched by Turkey on 9 October was aimed at clearing the territories east of the Euphrates of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be a terrorist group. According to official statements, the operation’s purpose was also to maintain Syrian territorial integrity and to create conditions for the return of a part of the Syrian refugees. On 17 October, after Turkish troops advanced into the Syrian territory, an agreement between the US and Turkey was reached, suspending the operation on the condition that Kurdish troops would leave the territories that Turkey considers to be within its security zone. On 22 October, it was agreed between Ankara and Moscow that Kurdish troops would move 30 kilometres south of the Syrian-Turkish border, while joint Russian-Turkish patrols would subsequently control territory.
Nevertheless, Turkey continues to express its dissatisfaction with the consequences of these agreements, thus hinting at the prospect of a possible resumption of the operation. For example, on 9 December, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview to the TRT channel that both deals (with the US and Russia) did not bring the expected results.
In this situation, the Turkish leader is acting from a position of strength, since it would be difficult for the actors who disagree with Ankara to influence its current Syrian policy in a significant way. Russia, intent on preserving a long-term presence in Syria will have to periodically update modus vivendi with its Turkish partner anyway. The United States is in a similar position, for Turkey is still a crucially important NATO ally (the second largest army in the alliance after the US).
In all likelihood, Turkey’s regional significance in the short term will also be determined by the growing tensions in US-Iran relations. And in the case of the present fragile equilibrium in Syria being destroyed, Washington’s interaction with anti-Assad Ankara may acquire yet another dimension.
At the same time, the Turkish presence south of the border is increasing the potential for conflict. Its presence not only violates the sovereignty of a UN member state; it’s also compounded by Ankara’s cooperation with the Syrian anti-government groups, which are ready to destabilise the situation as soon as possible, even beyond the northern regions of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Regarding the northern Syria impasse, it would make sense to think about the possibility of including new terms in the equation. For example, to analyse what could be done to engage the European Union. It might be appropriate to develop mechanisms for a multilateral settlement of the crisis with European participation. For Brussels, such a task is ever more relevant, given the growing willingness of the Americans to reduce their obligations to their allies in the security realm. The Syrian crisis, in this sense, provides Europeans with the opportunity to advance in the international arena as a single actor, bolstering old talk about the Union’s common foreign policy with real content.
One possible option in such a hypothetical settlement could, among other things, include the participation of European observers in the ongoing Turkish-Russian patrols of Kurdish-populated territories of northern Syria, where the situation raises Ankara’s most serious concerns.
In addition to strengthening the multilateral character of the settlement, such a development would have the advantage of the EU not being associated with the support of either side in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
One can also assume that collective activities in this case would contribute to the intensification of cooperation among western Eurasia’s major actors in other sore spots of the international arena as well.
Otherwise, the conflict in the north of Syria will remain a factor that can bring the already unstable situation out of control at any moment. This is especially ominous given the involvement of so many external players.