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Turkey scrambles to draft a roadmap for post-US troop withdrawal

Jan 16,2019 - Last updated at Jan 16,2019

Turkey's military has shifted its focus from north-eastern to north-western Syria since Al Qaeda's Hayat Tahrir Al Sham defeated Ankara's surrogate factions and seized control of Idlib province, the last insurgent bastion in the war-torn country. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, Chief of Staff Yasar Guler, Land Forces Commander Umit Dundar and intelligence head Hakan Fidan held hurried discussions in Hatay province near the border with Idlib, with the aim of formulating a strategy to deal with the unexpected turn of events in Idlib. Following their meeting, Akar said that "all efforts" would be made to maintain the ceasefire agreement reached last September in the Russian resort of Sochi, and promote stability. He added "...close cooperation with Russia continues".

However, now that Tahrir Al Sham, branded a "terrorist" organisation by the UN and the West, is the dominant force in Idlib, the Syrian army, with the cooperation of Russia, is free to conduct operations in the province with the aim of defeating and ousting Tahrir Al Sham and Turkey's surrogates. Sources in Damascus say that the Syrian army and its allies do not plan an all-out assault due to the presence of 3.5 million civilians in Idlib and adjacent areas in Aleppo and Hama provinces. Instead, the army will mount a campaign to slice off territory and squeeze the radicals and militants in Idlib until they surrender or flee. Their flight would, presumably, be into Turkey. This would amount to blowback for Ankara's ill-advised support for the political and paramilitary campaign to oust Syria's government.

While trying to deal with the Idlib debacle, the Turkish military and intelligence chiefs are scrambling to draw up a roadmap with the US for what happens after the Trump administration withdraws its 2,200 troops from northeast Syria. Concerns mounted after the Pentagon, acting under the orders of unpredictable commander-in-chief Donald Trump, began pulling out from Syria armoured vehicles and 

equipment.

To make matters worse for Ankara, its military and intelligence service have been weakened by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's purges of the rank and file and officer corps. The Turkish military command is also at odds with itself following the reassignment from the front lines to desk duties of four-star General Ismail Metin Temel, commander of Iraq and Syria operations, and Brigadier Mustafa Barut, who commanded a key commando brigade.

According to Turkish media, they were removed due to their objections to plans for Erdogan's campaign against the US-allied Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which have nearly defeated Daesh in eastern and south-eastern Syria. Erdogan considers the YPG an extension of Turkey's Kurdish Workers' Party, which has been battling Ankara for self-rule for more than 30 years. Erdogan's campaign plan is to clear the YPG from a band of territory 10-40 kilometres wide along the border and to use Syrian surrogates, grouped in the so-called “National Army”, to control the buffer zone. However, Tahrir Al Sham's rout of these guys in Idlib has exposed them as poorly trained, badly led and opportunistic gunmen who cannot be relied upon. Indeed, they have been a curse as they have robbed, beaten, killed, kidnapped and held for ransom civilians in areas they have held.

Trump has called on Erdogan to "protect the Kurds" and has threatened to devastate the Turkish economy, presumably through sanctions, if Turkey harms them while conducting a Turkish military offensive in eastern Syria. Trump's threat is certain to infuriate Erdogan, who is almost as irascible as Trump.

Trump has also asked Erdogan to eradicate Daesh. Both demands are fanciful. On one hand, Turkish politicians have repeatedly called for the "burial" of YPG fighters. Since the Turkish army and Syrian allies invaded the Kurdish-majority Syrian district of Afrin, they have expelled half the population and crushed and abused the other half.

On the other hand, ignorant Trump clearly did not bother to consult a map when he asked Erdogan to fight Daesh. Its fugitive fighters are scattered across the desert hundreds of kilometres south and east of the Turkish-Syria border. Therefore, the Turkish military would not be in a position to carry out a campaign which would involve setting up long-distance routes for deployment and the provision of supplies. Both would be vulnerable to attack by Daesh or YPG and Syrian government forces defending their country from invasion.

Aware of the fate they would face if Turkey invades the wide belt of territory on the Syrian side of the border, the YPG is certain to mount a strong defence. The YPG can muster 25,000-30,000 seasoned soldiers and a similar number of reservists, while Russia and Syria could intervene to deny the Turkish army air cover and protect the Kurds with air power. The YPG is unlikely to pull out of a "buffer zone" agreed by Turkey and the US, as Kurdish civilians living in the area would be left to the mercies of Ankara's brutal surrogates.

Talks between the Kurds and the Syrian government have been stepped up with the aim of pre-empting US withdrawal. The Kurds have given Damascus a roadmap, providing for the return to the government of the territory they hold in exchange for limited autonomy. If the sides agree, and the project implemented, the government would resume control of the 25 per cent of Syria held by the Kurds, increasing Damascus's holdings to 90 per cent of Syria. This is an attractive proposition to both the Kurds and the government, but not to Turkey, which has territorial ambitions in north Syria, or to Trump's advisers Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, both anti-Iran hawks, who seek to maintain a grip on northern Syria to exert leverage on Iran to pull out its forces from Syria.

Trump, who promised withdrawal to his political "base", seems to be ready to overrule Pompeo and Bolton, despite their determination to stay on. By ordering the Pentagon to begin withdrawal with armoured vehicles and hardware, Trump is getting his way, so far.  He is, after all, commander-in-chief, however ill-informed and foolish.

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