A day after American officials visited Turkey to discuss and coordinate the US military withdrawal from Syria, Ankara on Wednesday said preparations to eliminate Daesh and other terrorist groups in northern Syria are underway.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan previously committed to his US counterpart Donald Trump to eradicate all remnants of Daesh in Syria.
But Ankara has strongly objected to recent American conditions for withdrawing from Syria, such as Turkey guaranteeing the safety of Syrian-Kurdish forces allied to the US.
The meeting between National Security Adviser John Bolton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and special envoy on Syria James Jeffrey and their Turkish counterparts was dominated by this disagreement.
Erdogan reportedly declined to meet with Bolton. Before visiting Ankara, Bolton had said Turkey should coordinate any military moves with the US.
Experts say Turkey will not undertake a large-scale operation in northern Syria amid the presence of US troops.
Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Turkey’s options depend on moves by other actors in the Syrian conflict.
“Ankara is negotiating with Russia, which is in separate talks with the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and the (Syrian) regime” about the Kurdish-controlled northeast of the country in light of the US plan to withdraw, he told Arab News.
“Moscow will want to keep Turkey in the tent, but it will also have to manage relations with Damascus, which is clearly annoyed by the prospect of even more Turkish soldiers on its territory.”
If Damascus and the Kurds can reach an agreement on the return of the regime’s authority in the northeast, that will dictate the scope of a Turkish operation or whether it will take place at all, Stein said.
The implosion of the Turkish-Russian deal over the “de-escalation zone” in Syria’s Idlib province will be influential in the near future, he added.
“Turkey hasn’t been able to uphold its commitments (regarding the Idlib deal), which could strengthen Russian leverage over Ankara,” he said.
“Or Moscow could look the other way should things between the Kurds and the regime go south and no agreement is reached, which could give way to a Russian green light for a Turkish operation.”
Since last month, Erdogan has threatened to conduct a cross-border operation in areas held by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and dispatched military reinforcements along Turkey’s border with Syria.
Jesse Marks, Middle East analyst and Fulbright scholar at Cambridge University, told Arab News: “Turkey’s plan of action after US forces leave is dependent on how the process of withdrawal is implemented and what changes on the ground occur during this period.”
He said: “The Kurds might reach an agreement with the Syrian government over the northeast. This could pave the way for a transition of northeast Syria to Russian forces to prevent an immediate Turkish offensive, followed by a final handover to Damascus further down the line.”
Turkey is in a diplomatic position to negotiate with the US and Russia simultaneously in order to seek a better range of outcomes in its favor, Marks added.
But it is unlikely that Turkey will receive a comprehensive green light for military action from either country, he said.
“Ultimately, the future of northeast Syria isn’t a simple bilateral US-Turkish decision. Kurdish fears of an invasion hastened conversations with the Syrian government over some form of reunification, bringing Russian and Syrian interests into consideration,” he added.
“If Turkey launches a military offensive after the US drawdown, it has to deal with a range of possibilities that involve Russian and Syrian military actors in the area.”
Meanwhile, Ankara has asked the US to hand over 16 of its military bases in northern Syria, and to take back arms delivered to the YPG following the withdrawal.
Experts say for now it is unlikely that the US will hand over any bases in Syria to Turkey because of its alliance with Syrian-Kurdish forces.