After al-Bab, is Turkey really opting for liberating Raqqa?

The city of al-Bab has been called “strategically unimportant,” yet it has been Turkey’s most pressing focal point in the past three months of its Syrian engagement. Turkey’s battle for al-Bab has proved tougher and more prolonged, compared to the initial successes of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield.

Operation Euphrates Shield has so far lacked a clear, stringent plan and vision. Rather, it has served as an ad hoc strategic-military tool, that Ankara has employed so as not to be sidelined in the Syrian conflict. Turkey has used it to shape and adapt to the highly dynamic geopolitical environment, especially regarding the Kurds.

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This is true regarding the origins of the operation in August, where Turkish policymakers believed the YPG was becoming too powerful, and therefore intervened. And it is still the case today, as witnessed by the change of stance on Raqqa and the recent comments regarding the expansion and scope of the operation.

The change of dynamics Turkey is now responding to is the Syrian Defense Force’s (SDF) growing American support, as well as its military success in Operation Euphrates Wrath. The mere fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 12, 2017, was not being completely specific about the geographical dimensions of a proposed “four- to five-thousand sq.km. terror- free safe zone” is a testament to the ad-hoc nature of Turkey’s operation.

The number of Turkish casualties is now at 68 (as of February 14, 2017) of which 56 perished after initiating the Battle for al-Bab. Apart from the relatively heavy casualties, the battle’s long duration has undermined the perception of Turkey as a groundbreaker in the Syrian conflict.

And fear within the Turkish government that the lack of mentionable success in the battle would mean a negative outcome for the much-anticipated presidential referendum in April has been very real.

It was therefore with relief that Erdogan announced that it was “a matter of time” before the city would fall, just before departing to his Gulf tour on February 12. In that very announcement, Erdogan also made it clear that Turkey’s end goal was to liberate Raqqa.

It is not the first time a high-ranking Turkish official has mentioned a Turkish-led liberation of Raqqa. January 21, 2017, the Turkish foreign minister, Mehmet Cavusoglu, declared that Turkey would target Raqqa after capturing al-Bab.

And in an article from Rudaw on December 25, 2016, Erdogan was quoted as saying, “After Manbij comes Raqqa.”

Turkey being the main force in the liberation of Raqqa was not initial intention of the ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield. Speaking in an interview with Reuters on September 20, 2016, Erdogan made it clear that “Turkey will not act unilaterally to liberate Raqqa. We will get involved in actions taken by the [US-led] coalition forces.” A tone that has now changed.

So what led Ankara to declare a change of stance? First of all, it should be made clear that recapturing Raqqa is not Turkey’s main and immediate goal. The shelling of SDF-controlled areas in Manbijj and Afrin, on February 11, 2017, is a testament to this and a good indicator of what is next for Turkey.

Raqqa only first became a matter of great Turkish attention after the SDF, a mainly Kurdish militia, declared the initiation of “Operation Euphrates Wrath” on November 6, 2016. The SDF announced and launched the operation from the village of Ayn Issa, some 50 km. from Raqqa. Today the SDF is only 7.5 km. away from Raqqa city center.

THE OPERATION has largely been a success. In its three-month duration, the SDF along with coalition air-strikes have neutralized some 620 Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, among them several key figures. One of them, Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti, was the leader responsible for the defense of Raqqa. And the SDF recaptured more than 230 villages as well as 3,200 sq.km. of territory. Furthermore, the operation has received support from tribes in the area, and mobilized local militias as well as 8,500 Arab fighters, effectively making it one of SDF’s most ethnically inclusive operations so far.

What really worried Turkey, however, was the American arming of the SDF with heavy weapons on January 31, 2017 – under the leadership of US President Donald Trump. This marked a first in any American administration’s support to the SDF, support that up until then had been based on light weaponry, air support, special forces, ammunition and medical aid. The unprecedented move not only heralded the continuation of US-Turkish tension over Syria, but also a deepening of the strategic relationship between the US and SDF.

Another factor contributing to Turkish uneasiness is continued Russian support for the Kurds.

In a document that was leaked to the media prior to the Astana talks the Russian delegation proposed Kurdish autonomy and equal language rights within Syria. On top of all this, is the fact that one of the two persons assigned the task of drafting a new plan to counter ISIS for the Trump administration, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been known to be a strong supporter of the Kurds.

Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield is a multi-purpose operation. It is aimed at riding ISIS of its borders, acting as a buffer and relocation point for Syrian refugees, strengthening the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and most importantly, distorting the Kurdish state project in Northern Syria, Rojava, which it sees as linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an organization Turkey has designated a terrorist organization and that is currently waging a war against the Turkish state.

To Turkey, the SDF is a cover for the YPG, and the YPG is the Syrian extension of the PKK. This means the Turkish state views Rojava as more than an ideational agent provocateur for its own sizable Kurdish minority.

To Ankara, Rojava is a breeding and training ground for Kurdish insurgents, that are potentially relocated to Turkey to take part in the current low-intense civil war between the PKK and the Turkish state.

In 1998, Turkey threatened then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad with sending troops and tanks into Syria because he had been harboring the PKK. Today Turkey finds a de facto Kurdish state with links to the PKK on its borders. Historically the Kurdish question has been the main security concern for Turkey and still remains so today. It is containing this political entity, not liberating Raqqa, that is Ankara’s priority, as they believe it to be a security issue directly linked to its own domestic affairs.

The author is the Middle East editor of RÆSON, a Danish quarterly on international and Danish politics, and studies international relations at the London School of Economics.

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