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Syria Weekly: Could the S-400 push Turkey into a new campaign in northern Syria? Open in fullscreen

Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Could the S-400 push Turkey into a new campaign in northern Syria?

The S-400 has put Turkey and the US on collision course [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 July, 2019

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Growing hostility between Turkey and the US could play out in Syria, where tensions between the two sides of the presence of armed Kurdish groups remain strong.
A hulking cargo plane touched the tarmac of Ankara on Friday with a special delivery from Moscow that soon was to plunge Turkey into a major diplomatic rift with NATO ally, the US. 

The S-400 missile has been touted by many military analysts – especially Russian ones – as the world's most advanced surface-to-air missile system, able to down anything from multi-million dollar tactical fighter jets to ballistic missiles. 

This versatility has made the S-400 highly in demand, but whether it is worth the price for Turkey seeing that it has been formally frozen out of the F-35 fighter jet programme by the US in relationship is yet to be seen. 

The delivery coincided with the anniversary of an attempted coup in Turkey, allegedly by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, which whether intended or not has added symbolism regarding the increasingly frosty relationship between Washington and Ankara.

Read also: Turkey three years after the failed coup attempt: leaner army, more assertive foreign policy

Syria dispute

The crisis between Turkey and the US runs deeper than the missile system.

For the past three-years Ankara has been fixated with Washington's sponsorship of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara views as dominated by a Kurdish terrorist faction. 


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Since the militia coalition helped defeat the Islamic State group in Syria, the SDF have come to occupy huge swathes of northern and western Syria, including areas along the Turkish border, and with it the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). 

Ankara accuses the YPG of being a front for the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought an on-off campaign against the Ankara since the 1980s. 

The situation of having hostile Kurdish armed groups, protected by the US and growing in strength close to its borders, has become an existential issue for Ankara and seen the Turkish armed forces intervene in Syria against the YPG and IS.
Turkey might feel compelled to launch an urgent military operation to block further foreign attempts to support the SDF
- Dr Ali Bakeer, political analyst
Efforts by Ankara to convince the US to contain and disarm the YPG could suffer a further set-back due to the recent fall-out between the two countries over the S-400 system, which Washington says is incompatible with NATO defences.

"The US administration is trying to contain the implications of its decision to kick Turkey out of F-35 joint production programme, so it is highly unlikely that the disagreement will not spill out to other issues including Syria," said Dr Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher.

"This, however, will depend on whether Washington will fulfil its commitments and reach an agreement with Turkey on the situation east of the Euphrates River and resolve the dispute with Ankara over support for the YPG." 

Turkey's own military operations against IS and Kurdish militias in northern Turkey have been concentrated primarily on areas to the west of the Euphrates River, notably around al-Bab and the western region of Afrin, a former canton of the YPG. 

Ankara has sought to dominate the areas to the west of the Euphrates although Kurdish force still controls the city of the Manbij, which lies on the western bank of the river.

Turkey has pushed the US – which has a military presence in the city – to expel Kurdish fighters from Manbij. 

Frustrated by Washington's delays in carrying out the promised expulsion, Turkey has several times made threats to take the city by force, but the presence of American troops in Manbij has likely prevented any military operations. 
Divisions

Bakeer said that for Ankara, the failure of the US to carry out the Manbij deal is another example of Washington's procrastination and serves as a major source of contention between the two NATO allies.

Although Turkey is unlikely to carry out military action in Manbij while American personnel are present, there have been reports of a military build-up on its border with Syria. 

The reported deployment of Turkish forces to the Syria frontier appears to coincide with US President Donald Trump's diplomatic efforts in establishing a multinational peacekeeping force in northern Syria. 

This would fit with Trump's desire to reduce or end the American military in Syria, but an EU-Arab force would be unlikely to be large enough to police a large region still vulnerable to an IS insurgency. This would mean that the Kurdish-Arab SDF would still dominate the security apparatus there.

So far, Germany has said it would play no role in the peacekeeping force, while France and the UK have both responded positively although neither are likely to send more than a few hundred troops. 
Turkey is not happy with the prospect of European boots on the ground in Syria, because it sees it as an attempt by its Western allies in NATO to shield the PKK and its branch in Syria
Ankara is said to fear that the presence of European soldiers in the region would act as a shield against for the SDF and make a military operation to the east of the Euphrates politically sensitive. 

"Turkey is not happy with the prospect of European boots on the ground in Syria, because it sees it as an attempt by its Western allies in NATO to shield the PKK and its branch in Syria," Bakeer added. 

"This is another reason why Turkey might feel compelled to launch an urgent military operation to block further foreign attempts to support the SDF, especially after the Pentagon officially requested a $300 million budget to support the force."

Urgency 

The Turkish military build-up appears to be concentrated on areas near to YPG-controlled territories. There have been reports that S-400 launch vehicles could be deployed to these areas ahead of an operation to the east of the Euphrates, but there are question marks on whether the missile system could be operational before next year. 

Bakeer said that the reason for the troop deployments remain speculative but cannot be separated from Turkey being frozen out of the F-35 programme and stalled negotiations with the US on the creation of safe zones in northern Syria. 

The massing of troops on the border also comes after the assassination of Turkish diplomats by suspected PKK operatives in Erbil, Iraq earlier this week, with Erdogan vowing revenge for the killings. 

Read more here: Three Turkish diplomats killed in Erbil restaurant attack

Added to this are the presence of four million Syrians in Turkey, with rising xenophobia against the refugees making it a domestic issue that has piled pressure on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly after his party's loss in the Istanbul elections. 

The ruling Freedom and Justice Party's (AKP) response has been to seek to establish safe havens in northern Syria for "returnees", protected by Turkish forces from the regime and YPG.

Despite the continued pressure on Erdogan to deal with Kurdish militancy and push ahead with the "safe havens" initiative, Ankara is wary about clashing with the US over Syria.

"I don't think Turkey would launch a military operation without exhausting all diplomatic options with the US," Bakeer said.

"Turkey wants a political solution in Syria and to see it transform into a stable and secure country without the presence of terrorist organisations, free of internal conflicts. If this happens Ankara will continue to support a unified Syria."

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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