The Covid-19 pandemic may change many things in international affairs, but thus far, it has failed to alter the conflict dynamics in Syria. Even more, as the Astana trio’s recent initiatives have illustrated, the main players of the Syrian conflict are vying to deepen their footprints in the country. Russia has recently speeded up its efforts to establish a new local force that will be closely associated with Russian forces in the East of the Euphrates, capitalizing on the deterioration of the economic situation in the country. Moreover, the Arab tribes in the area have become a matter of rivalry for recruitment efforts between the USA and Russia. Likewise, Iran is trying to further penetrate the Daraa province by supporting a fresh assault on it through “the Iranian wing within the government’s forces.” The role of the 4th division led by Maher al-Assad, who has strong ties to Iran, shows Iran’s role in the possible assault. For Tehran, Daraa’s importance stems from the province’s geostrategic location and its proximity to Israel’s borders.
Turkey, an integral part of the Astana process, is not exempt from this grim reality in Syria, as the pandemic has not altered any of its primary objectives in the country. Ankara, both prior to and in the aftermath of the Covid-19, pursues three interlinked political goals in Syria. First, assuring the security of overcrowded Idlib province and, by extension, other areas that Turkey has a military presence. Second, preventing the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)/Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from obtaining any political status or constitutional recognition. Third, preventing the prospect of a new refugee influx towards Turkey’s southern borders.
Turkey’s primary strategy towards Idlib has been crystal-clear for a long time. Ankara has long aspired to preserve the current status quo in the province until a political solution is realized to the Syrian crisis. To that end, the country has adopted a bicephalous strategy containing military and diplomatic aspects. In fact, for the most part, drawing a distinction between the two parts is not an easy task. On the one hand, as was the case with the Moscow deal of March 5, Turkey, which with Russian consent, temporarily froze the conflict buying extra time. On the other hand, fearing that the next round of the outbreak of the hostilities isn’t that far away, Ankara goes for further military consolidation on the ground. Currently, Turkey has a military presence of thousands of soldiers, who are based in almost 50 military bases in the Idlib province. These military reinforcements indicate that Ankara is eager to turn Idlib into a de facto safe zone.
Moreover, Turkey has been increasing its support to the groups operating under the command of the Syrian National Army (SNA) to beef up their ranks. For this purpose, Ankara has recently initiated a new train-equip program trying to anticipate a new potential regime offensive backed by Russia and Iran in the upcoming period. Additionally, Turkey recently succeeded in carrying out the 12th joint patrol with Russia on the M4 highway in Idlib against all the odds. However, maintaining the status quo in Idlib comes at a cost for Ankara. The joint patrols decision led to protests in Idlib, given Russia’s role in the assaults on Idlib, civilian death toll, and the massive displacement. Likewise, the patrols are constantly cut short due to the threat of attacks. What is worse, in Idlib, Turkish troops were targeted in an attack that was staged by radical groups. The attack resulted in the loss of two Turkish soldiers. Such developments of the recent months in Idlib clearly demonstrate how the diplomatic, political, and military aspects of the Syrian imbroglio are intimately intertwined. Despite the hurdles the Turkey faces in Syria, Ankara is emboldened to not only continue but to double on its efforts in Idlib.
The Border Security
Border security is another main objective of Turkey’s Syria policy. The pandemic only further exacerbates Ankara’s concern with regard to the security of its border with Syria. The latest Russian-Assad regime military offensive on Idlib pushed almost a million people towards Turkey’s southern borders. To date, the vast majority of the IDPs could not find the chance to return to their homes after the agreement brokered between Turkey and Russia in Moscow on March 5. The overcrowded camps on the Turkish borders are in dire circumstances. They lack basic hygiene needs, creating a considerable risk both for the refugees themselves and Turkey. A possible coronavirus outbreak in these camps could trigger a new flow of desperate Syrian IDPs to flee towards Turkey. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Turkey has taken some measures in Idlib, such as transferring humanitarian aid to the province and restricting the mobility of Turkish troops in the area. However, Idlib’s population is almost 4 million, and the humanitarian aid provided to the province is far from sufficient for such a large population.
Besides, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the living conditions in Idlib. In the upcoming period, Syrian IDPs are likely to make other desperate moves to cross into Turkey. However, Turkey is highly likely to toughen up its measures to continue containing the prospect of a new refugee influx towards its border.
Preventing the PYD/SDF From Gaining Official Status
The third pillar of Turkey’s Syria policy is based on preventing the PYD, which is designated as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by Ankara, and the SDF from attaining official recognition from the Syrian regime. Preventing the prospect of a PYD-led statelet lying on Turkish borders sits atop of Turkey’s political goals in Syria. Thus, in accordance with this objective, Turkey is highly likely to capitalize on its military power to undermine the position of the PYD/SDF in the upcoming period. Turkey will neither downsize its military presence nor decrease the level of its support to the Syrian National Army to undermine the organization.
Likewise, Turkey continues to pursue its fight against the PYD/SDF on the diplomatic front as well. Ankara has lately shown its discontentment with the recent unity talks amongst the Syrian Kurdish groups, more precisely between the PYD and Erbil-backed Kurdish National Council (KNC), under the sponsorship of the USA, which Russia and France also support. The PYD hopes to be included in the political processes, such as by joining the Geneva process, if it reconciles with its rival Syrian Kurdish organization, which has a working relationship with Ankara. Turkey adamantly opposes these unity talks precisely for the same reason. Ankara believes that through the unity talks, PYD/SDF aims for more international legitimacy and inclusion into the political processes. Irrespective of Turkish opposition, the prospect of success for these talks aren’t that bright. First, the KNC wants the PYD to distance itself from the PKK, and the PYD demands the KNC to split from Istanbul-based Syrian opposition. Both demands are not realistic. Besides, Turkey has toughened its stance towards the negotiations. Recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has made Ankara’s stand towards the talks clear by articulating: “We will neither allow a terror corridor, nor the legitimation of terrorists on our borders.”
Having said that, even though Turkey has been longing for weakening the administrative and security structures that had been put in place by the PYD/SDF, it is not realistic to expect Turkey to initiate a new offensive against the organization, particularly at a time when Turkey’s financial vulnerabilities are becoming more apparent. Thus, Turkish authorities are highly likely to refrain from initiating a new military operation, which might also put further strain both on the economy and on Turkish-US relations, at a time when Ankara is looking for a swap line with the Federal Reserve. A short while ago, Ankara postponed the activation of the S-400s, which were supposed to be activated by the end of April. This move is widely interpreted as a decision to avoid the imposition of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. If implemented, these sanctions could have a debilitating impact on the already suffering Turkish economy.
In summation, the Covid-19 pandemic is not a game-changer and is unlikely to have a massive impact on the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. However, as it directly affects the Turkish economy and the public opinion, it will lead Ankara to be more calculative in its steps, at least for the time being.
This article was first published by ISPI (Italian Institute for International Political Studies)