Turkey at a Crossroads: What's Next for the Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria

© REUTERS / Khalil AshawiTurkish military vehicles drive in the Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai, as they head towards the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria January 9, 2017
Turkish military vehicles drive in the Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai, as they head towards the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria January 9, 2017 - Sputnik International
On Thursday, Turkish media reported that Turkish forces backed by Syrian opposition forces had fully liberated the city of al-Bab, the last Daesh stronghold in northern Syria. At the same time, the Turkish General Staff could not confirm the reports, with the country’s Defense Ministry saying that the military operation was still underway.

The Situation on the Ground

Free Syrian Army fighters are seen in al Baza'a village in the outskirts of al-Bab town, Syria - Sputnik International
Turkish Troops Surround Syria's Al-Bab, Fighting to Fully Free City Continues
Last week, Turkish troops and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) surrounded the city from the north and the west and then entered the city center.

The Euphrates Shield operation was launched in August. Its declared goal was to maintain security at the Turkish-Syrian border and liberate the border regions in northern Syria from Daesh militants and Kurdish troops, according to Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The offensive was not authorized by the Syrian government led by President Bashar Assad.

Turkey’s military actions in northern Syria are also aimed at containing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces and preventing the Kurds from uniting two their enclaves in northwestern and northeastern Syria. Ankara regards the YPG as the combat wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is outlawed in Turkey.

The situation near al-Bab is further complicated by the presence of Syrian troops backed by the Russian Aerospace Forces. The Syrian military is running an offensive on Daesh from the south.

Turkish forces and members of the Free Syrian Army are seen at the al Baza'a village on the outskirts of al-Bab town in Syria February 4, 2017 - Sputnik International
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According to Hurriyet, in order to prevent a collision between Turkish and Syrian troops, Turkey and Russia established a "contact coordination line" along a road in the Tadif region southeast of al-Bab. According to the coordination agreement, Turkish military and its allies would not advance to the south of this line while Syrian troops and its allies would not move to the north.

On January 12, the defense ministries of Russia and Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding to coordinate their counterterrorist actions in Syria. Starting January 18, Russian and Turkish warplanes carried out a series of joint airstrikes on Daesh targets near al-Bab.

However, despite the coordination efforts, on February 9, three Turkish servicemen were killed and over 10 were injured as a result of a Russian airstrike near al-Bab. The Russian Defense Ministry said that it received the coordinates from the Turkish side.

Next Stop Raqqa

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, one carrying a Turkish flag, patrol in Dabiq, Syria (File) - Sputnik International
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"Our forces together with the Free Syrian Army have entered al-Bab. […] Now Daesh militants are leaving al-Bab," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists on Sunday.

Erdogan also stated that the ultimate goal of the Turkish military operation in northern Syria is to free the region, including Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Daesh, from terrorists and Manbij, in northeastern Aleppo, from YPG forces.

The president added that after Daesh is defeated, Turkish troops will leave northern Syria.

"After removing Daesh, the YPG and the PYD [the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party] from the region and getting Daesh out of Raqqa, it will be too much of a luxury for us to say there. But it is currently too early to talk about such issues," Erdogan said.

In this undated file image posted on Monday, June 30, 2014, by the Raqqa Media Center of the Islamic State group, a Syrian opposition group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, fighters from the Islamic State group parade in Raqqa, north Syria - Sputnik International
How Turkey's Bid to Liberate Raqqa Depends on Power of Moscow, Washington
He also stressed that Turkey wants to establish "safe zones" in the liberated areas. Ankara has long called for a no-fly zone aimed to protect its border from both Daesh and Kurdish forces. The Turkish government says that a no-fly zone would help resolve the refugee problem.

Former United States President Barack Obama opposed the initiative, arguing that security could be established only via increased military presence, including ground forces and missile defenses. However, new US President Donald Trump has spoken out for such "safe zones."

If the Turkish military continues to advance on Raqqa it will face the Syrian Army which is currently deployed south of al-Bab, according to Leonid Isayev, a specialist in Orientalist studies. If Turkey continues the offensive on Manbij it will confront Kurdish forces controlling the city.

"A Turkish confrontation with the Syrian Army will put Moscow in the hot seat while a confrontation with Kurds will create troubles for Washington," Isayev told RBK.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters walk with their weapons during an offensive against Islamic State militants in northern Raqqa province, Syria - Sputnik International
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Since no one needs further escalation it cannot be ruled out that the Euphrates Shield operation would be stopped, the expert suggested.

"But if Erdogan finally decides to move, the Turkish military will concentrate on Manbij because the fight against the Kurds is the priority for Ankara," he added.

According to Hasan Kanbolat, head of the Ankara Center for Political Studies, Turkey is mulling ending its military operation in northern Syria and wants to launch an operation in Raqqa, together with the US and with support from Russia.

"Turkey needs to fling back Daesh from its border to the south as far as possible. Thus, Ankara says it should be involved in an operation in Raqqa. But Turkey cannot go there alone. Ankara expects to join forces with the US-led coalition and have support from Russia," Kanbolat told Sputnik Turkiye.

Kurds Will Not Give Up

Meanwhile, retired Lieutenant-General of the Turkish Air Force, Erdogan Karakush suggested that the liberation of the city does not mean that Turkish troops would leave the area right away.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters, raises a flag of the SDF near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20 km north of Raqqa, during their offensive towards the Islamic State (IS) group's Syrian stronghold as part of the third phase retake the city and its surroundings, on February 8, 2017 - Sputnik International
Kurds Determined to Fully Liberate Syria’s Raqqa From Daesh
"The US supports the PYD, which controls the territory to the east of the Euphrates. PYD forces seek to capture Raqqa, and if this happens, Syria will be divided. Therefore, Turkey has, in addition, to take action to prevent Syria's division and to work hard on weakening the positions of the PYD and the PKK," Karakush said in an interview with Sputnik Turkiye.

However, earlier this week, President of Kobani Canton, Syrian Kurdistan, Anwar Muslim told Sputnik that Kurds will prevent Ankara from taking control over Syrian territories liberated from Daesh in northern Syria.

"Manbij is autonomous now. We were helping locals to liberate it from the Islamic State [Daesh]. If they ask us again, we will help, of course. We will not put Manbij under Turkish control," Muslim said.

Kurdish fighters with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, wave their yellow triangular flag in the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria. (File) - Sputnik International
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He added that sometimes Turkey resorted to provocations and stressed that the Kurds had the right to self-defense.

"We regard Turkey, which sent its troops to Syria, as occupants. Sooner or later they will have to leave Syria," Muslim noted.

According to Ilham Ehmed, co-leader of the Syrian Democratic Council and a senior member of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), "the military council and locals will mount fierce resistance if Manbij is attacked [by Turkey and its allies]."

Ehmed also suggested that Turkey is not interested in bringing peace and stability to Syria.

"Ankara is trying to take Syria under control by seizing Manbij and other regions. This lies at the heart of its intervention and combat operations in Syria," she told Sputnik Turkiye.

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