US creates new facts on the ground in Syria

The Trump administration is making a determined effort to engage with Turkey, which used to be the anchor sheet of American regional strategies in the Middle East for several decades. Without a robust partnership with Turkey, US policies remain ineffectual on several regional fronts – ranging from the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean to post-conflict Syria, Iran oil sanctions and Gulf security — and even Khashoggi affair.

Turkey has a long list of grievances – real, feigned or imaginary. But President Trump senses that Turkish president Erdogan prioritizes two core issues – demand that a) Washington should extradite his arch political rival Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen (who he alleges plotted the failed coup against him in 2016); and, b) that the so-called Halkbank case in a Manhattan court should be wound up.

Trump has lately signaled that he is acting on both issues. Gulen is a tough call for Trump insofar as he has been an “asset” of the CIA. The Halkbank file may be relatively easy to handle.

(Fetullah Gulen’s ‘retreat center’ in Pennsylvania)

In turn, Erdogan is holding the trump card in the Khashoggi affair, which has potential to undermine the US’ grand Middle East strategies. A top Saudi establishment commentator Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, “Turkey has been using the (Khashoggi) crime to push Trump to make concessions to release a convicted Turkish banker or hand over an opposition figure in exchange of stopping its campaign against Saudi Arabia.” Clearly, Trump expects Erdogan to stop fueling the Khashoggi affair.

Erdogan has now let it be known that he is open to meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina on November 30.

However, the Turkish-American engagement has a much bigger backdrop — Syrian conflict. How far the tango over Khashoggi helped US to address the Syrian situation is hard to tell, but American diplomacy has a way of juggling several balls. In particular, Pentagon’s alliance with Syrian Kurdish groups worries Turkey and Erdogan has been threatening to move against them.

Now, the US has come up with an innovative idea to work with Turkish military apropos any terrorist threats from Syria. Two days ago, US defence Secretary James Mattis unveiled the idea with disarming simplicity during an interaction with the media:

“Turkey is a NATO ally and they have legitimate concerns about terror threats… from Assad’s Syria… And Turkey has a lot of reasons for concerns, being the NATO country with a border right along Syria. And we don’t dismiss any of their concerns. We are putting in OPs up in northern Syria, this is the change now, okay? We are putting in observation posts in several locations up along the Syria border — northern Syria border because we want to be the people who call the Turks and warn them if we see something coming out of an area that we’re operating in. This is closely collaborated – we are consulting closely with Turkey, military and State Department. Both were consulting with them.”

“We are going to track any threat that we can spot going up into Turkey. That means we will be talking to Turkish military across the border. They will be very clearly marked locations day and night so that the Turks know where they’re at.”

Meanwhile, Voice of America also reported on November 22 that “a large military convoy from an Arab country was deployed last week to the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour” in the region under US control.

Prima facie, the US is pre-empting any excuse by Turkey to attack the Kurdish groups by offering a CBM. But the bottom line is that the US is marking as its exclusive preserve a vast swathe of territory in Syria’s northeastern region — roughly one-third of entire Syria — which is rich in hydrocarbon reserves and water resources, and it expects Turkey to respect the ground reality.

(Who controls what in Syria.)

Without doubt, an entity is being carved out of Syria that is beyond the reach of Damascus,  with the Arab Forces providing the “steel frame” for internal security and acting as deterrent against any Turkish attacks against the Kurdish militia, while the US monitors the border region with Turkey.

Mattis claimed that Turkey is on board. But Turkey strongly supports Syria’s unity. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has openly voiced disquiet over the US move to set up observation posts on Turkish-Syrian border. Akar disclosed that Turkey conveyed its “discomfort” to the Pentagon:

“We have stated that the observation points to be established by the US troops on the Syrian border will have a very negative impact… and in the course of our discussions we expressed that it could lead to a perception that US soldiers are somehow protecting terrorist YPG (Syrian Kurdish) members and shield them.”

Equally, could an Arab force’s – most likely Saudi and Emirati troops – deployment (just when the war is ending) have been without prior consultation between Washington and Ankara? The point is, Turkey has troubled relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE and will resent their deployment of troops to its border regions with Syria.

In sum, the US’ newfound role as the gatekeeper of the Turkish-Syrian border means Pentagon is creating new facts on the ground, which signals a long-term US occupation of northern Syria. There are serious implications for Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. Indeed, the last thing that Turkey wants is an independent entity along its border with Syria where the Kurds enjoy autonomy.  Turkey has a congruence of interests with Russia and Iran in this regard.