What is Turkey’s next move in Syria?

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Turkish forces seen on border with Syria. © AP Photo/ Mursel Coban, Depo Photos

ARA News 

ERBIL – The Turkish-backed forces in Syria have recently managed to control Azaz-Jarabulus line as part of the Euphrates Shield operation. According to analysts, Turkey’s next step is to take over al-Bab city, not Manbij–that’s been liberated recently by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from ISIS.

“Turkey is unlikely to enter Manbij if nothing else because most probably there are US Special Forces there. The [Kurdish] YPG [leading member of SDF] says it withdrew from Manbij,” Woodrow Wilson Centre’s Turkey analyst Amberin Zaman told ARA News.

Obama’s anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk last weekend visited officials from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and coalition forces in northern Syria and Rojava to discuss future operations against ISIS.

Most likely the problems between Turkish-backed rebels and the SDF forces were discussed during McGurk’s visit.

“As for Al Bab Turkey can only move there with Coalition air support. Before moving further south, if that is on the cards at all, Turkey-backed rebels first need to prove that they can hold the areas they just captured,” Zaman said.

“US wants to avoid any further conflict between its Turkish and Kurdish allies. The one to follow now in terms of Turkish moves against the YPG is Afrin. Bab will be far more difficult to take. There are lots of civilians there like there were in Manbij,” she added.

Ilker Basbug, former Chief of the General Staff of Turkey, told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that securing the Turkish borders with Syria would not be enough to provide security for Turkey, and that the Turkish-backed rebels in Syria should either take Manbij or al-Bab.

“For depth, we should have gone off to Manbij or al-Bab… Those places are 20-30 kilometres away. Aleppo is important for the Assad regime. Russia can overlook this. This could have even been spoken with Russia,” he said.

The former Turkish general suggested that it would be better for Turkey to improve its relations with the Syrian government, to withdraw from northern Syria and hand over the area to the Syrian army. 

The Syrian rebels would not be able to hold the area without the Turkish army, the ex-general said.

Speaking to ARA News, Michael Stephens, Research Fellow for Middle East Studies and Head of RUSI Qatar, pointed out that Turkey will most likely try to go for al-Bab city.

“If they don’t take al-Bab then the Kurds will link their three cantons of Rojava [Cezire, Kobane and Afrin] so it makes little sense to leave it if you’re Turkey,” he said.

Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, Nicholas Heras, told ARA News that the major Turkish goal is to create an ‘exclusion’ zone. “At least from al-Bab to Jarabulus,” he said.

“The first overarching goal is to seize an Exclusion Zone from at least Al-Bab to Jarablus, and if the US will not stop it, all the way to Kobane. This Exclusion Zone is primarily aimed at reducing the territorial control of the Kurds. This is the big overarching objective,” Heras said.

“The second overarching objective is to demonstrate to the international community that Turkish-backed, Syrian armed opposition groups can and should hold the entirety of the Exclusion Zone,” he added.

According to the Washington-based analyst, the United States will not accept the Turkish army and Islamist rebels to take Manbij.

“Manbij is for all intents and purposes now outside what the United States is accepting as part of the Exclusion Zone,” he told ARA News. “Turkey wants its Syrian armed opposition proxies to hold and administer Manbij because it does not want the SDF, especially the Kurds, to have an alternate base of operations west of the Euphrates.”

Manbij would be a staging ground to take Raqqa from the fist of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) militants, according to Heras.

“From Manbij it is also possible for the SDF, and not the Turkish-backed Syrian armed opposition, to stage a campaign against Raqqa,” he said. “However, Turkey wants to deny the SDF, and by extension the Kurds, the prestige of seizing ISIS’ putative capital [Raqqa].” 

Ahmed Osman, a rebel from the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad group, in an interview with Reuters threatened that the Kurdish YPG forces should withdraw from the east bank of the Euphrates, otherwise the Turkish backed rebels would confront them in Manbij.

Most likely tensions will continue between the SDF forces and Turkish-backed rebels, which could lead to more instability and conflict in northern Aleppo.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Source: ARA News

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