Discussion with Aaron Stein on the End of Euphrates Shield

Hossam: Hi my name is Hossam Abouzahr and I am the editor in chief in the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council. Today we’re going to talk with Aaron Stein about Turkey’s recent ending of the Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria. My first question is, what led them to ending the operation? It ended two weeks ago.

Aaron: You know, it’s clearly an instance where the job is almost done, as laid down by Turkey’s own public statements on the goal of Euphrates Shield, which was to operate in three different phases which was to go across the border – first phase – take Jarablus, and then push out to al-Rai – that’s phase one – then phase two was to consolidate the push towards al-Bab. Then phase three was al-Bab in and of itself. And as the operation went on, Manbij was included in probably what would be considered phase four, and this ultimately led to where this ended. It seems pretty clear in hindsight that Russia in particular, and the US, neither wanted Turkey to move on Manbij.

And so the US, in a rather overt act, sent its soldiers to the northern tip of Manbij to prevent Turks from moving in. But I think what really sealed it is that Moscow cut a deal with the Syrian Kurds who were in that area to carve out the little buffer zone in there, where it’s jointly monitored by Russia and the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian regime. And on the other side of Euphrates Shield, in Afrin, another Kurdish-held canton or territory, the Russians also made their presence very known and told everybody that they were monitoring a ceasefire. This blocked Turkey in and they had nowhere else to go, and so shortly after this, around March 10th, Euphrates Shield ended, and I think about two weeks ago they declared an end to combat operations. They did hold out the caveat that they could continue, they would just call it something else.

Hossam: So, in this case they would consider it mission accomplished, but did they actually achieve their goals of blocking off the Kurds and keeping them from connecting their territories Afrin with the eastern part, especially now as the Kurds seem to be working hand in hand with the Russians and the regime?

Aaron: They almost achieved their objectives. And again, here you have to look at the actions of Moscow facilitating the movements of the regime. Euphrates Shield was bogged down in phase three as they moved to the outskirts of al-Bab in late November, and as they began the actual push into the city in December, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) launched a devastating counterattack, and the city doesn’t actually fall until February 2017. And so you’re looking at that period of November 2016 to February 2017 where Turkey is basically at the gates of al-Bab but is unable to push in. And while this is all happening, the Russians and the regime are moving south of the city and essentially block Turkey from moving further south into Syria.

And it’s at that point that Turkey’s options became extremely limited. But also, one outcome of this is the regime hit Kurdish territory, and then in March 2017 the regime, the Russians, and the Syrian Kurds brokered this deal for this little ribbon that blocks Turkey from going through. So you can imagine some sort of scenario where there is passage between Kurdish-held Manbij, and Kurdish-held Afrin, between the two cantons. So in that sense Euphrates shield didn’t achieve its objectives, but it pretty much did – there’s not some contiguous Kurdish blob all the way along the border. I think regime-held checkpoints the Kurds have to pass through in small numbers is good enough for Turkey at this moment.

Hossam: So you said Turkey still has the option of doing combat operations if they do it under a different name. Does that mean there’s still a force behind in Syria that they’ve left? And if so what are its duties right now?

Aaron: They’re settling in, in northern Syria. Their little pocket of northern Aleppo cannot function without Turkey. Turkey underwrites the training of the police officers, I think they’re setting up administrative courts, they run the aid services and oversee all of these things. So they’re very much taking on the functional equivalent of, I don’t want to call it an occupying power, but a power that is responsible for overseeing the provision of services. They have an easy-to-spot military base on open-source satellite imagery, ironically enough right next to Dabiq. It’s pretty large, and they have a number of small positions in and around al-Bab, right on the border with the regime.

So it certainly looks like they’re there to stay. That’s not very far from Turkey to begin with. We’re only talking about 40-some-odd kilometers into Syria. And on top of all that, they have a feeder program to train rebels just inside their territories that are joining up with Euphrates shield, the different brigades within it, and to become the police officers responsible for administering this territory. And so all signs point to a prolonged and continued Turkish presence within northern Syria.

Hossam: Given that Euphrates Shield now is officially ended, but Turkey still sees the Kurdish PKK and PYD as threats, what are going to be the next steps for countering that threat?

Aaron: The Turkish government, since declaring an end to Euphrates Shield, has been very clear in declaring that they’re going to do something else: under a different name, probably not in northern Aleppo where they are now. They haven’t told us, obviously, where it is. There’s two sort-of theories about what they can do. There has always been dangling out there, for over a year now, that they could invade Tal Abyad, and do exactly what they did with Euphrates Shield, probably on a smaller scale, in that case, but then that would have the benefit of breaking up the territorial continuity of Kobane and Jazeera cantons of the PYD. So they always have that option.

The US really isn’t in Tal Abyad, the US is in Kobane and the US sort of snakes through into Hasaka, and Tal Abyad is sort of hanging out there, so they wouldn’t run into as many problems as they would, like say they had in Manbij. They’ve also been very boisterous and overt about how they’re very uncomfortable with what’s going on in Sinjar, on the other border, on the Iraqi side of the border. Because there is a small, sort-of PKK-trained, Yazidi militia called YBS. It has recently popped up and flared up in conflict with forces allied with Masoud Barzani, a close Turkish ally, who has midwifed these things called the Roj Pesh, or the Rojava Peshmerga, which are linked to Barzani but are basically made up of Kurdish refugees or people who flee from inside of Syria and end up taking residence inside of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The third option: Sinjar is about 150 kilometers away from the Turkish border, so it’s a big push, so the third option is they don’t quite go to Sinjar. They try to leave that to the Barzanis, and they just push across into the border for what is essentially what is pretty standard Turkish policy, what I call “mowing the grass” every couple of years in northern Iraq, where they march in between 10 and 30 thousand troops for anywhere up to a year for operations against the PKK. They have all three of those options available to them. They can exercise any one of them, I mean it’s hard to tell, or they could do nothing, they could be bluffing. But we’re really going to have to wait to tell, I think a lot depends on the direction of Turkish politics in the next couple of weeks.

Hossam: Well thank you very much Aaron, it looks like it’s, as always, an interesting time in Turkey and Syria and Iraq.

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Image: Photos: A sign showing the Free Syrian army flag (L) and a logo of the "Free Police" is seen in the Syrian border town of Jarablus January 24, 2017. The text reads in Arabic(top) :"National general security and police force". REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi