Author: Kanan ROVSHANOGHLU
Operation Peace Spring began on October 9 and was Turkey’s third military campaign in Syria, albeit short and without large casualties for the Turkish army. Within a week time, the Turkish army cleared approximately 1,500 square meters from the PYD/YPG militants along the 120-kilometer stretch of the Syrian border between Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad.
Balance of power
Operation Peace Spring involved more than 60 thousand troops, including 40 thousand Turkish servicemen and 20 thousand fighters of the Syrian National Army (SNA). In addition, there were 14 thousand fighters from such military groups as Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Jaish al-Sharqiya, Jaish al-Shamiya, Jaish al-Nasr, Jabhat an-Nasr, etc.
The area covered by Operation Peace Spring has been under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for more than four years. The coalition created in 2015 includes Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians and representatives of other smaller ethnic groups. However, the driving force of the SDF is Kurdish groups, rather the combat wing of the Kurdish political organisation PYD (Democratic Union Party), that is YPG and other armed groups on territories with the majority of the Kurdish population. The area also host the armed forces of the US and several European countries.
According to estimates, SDF has a total of 84 thousand fighters, including 50-60 thousand fighters of the Kurdish YPG, 24 thousand Arab militants, and representatives of small ethnic and religious groups. According to various estimates, seven different Kurdish armed groups operate in the region with the largest being YPG and the Women's Self-Defense Forces (YPJ).
The long-term resistance of Kurds to the Turkish army on the flat and sometimes hilly terrain in north-eastern Syria initially seemed unrealistic. That is exactly what happened.
The long-awaited truce
Meanwhile, the Turkish military operation has been seriously criticised in Western countries, especially in the United States. In particular, the initial approval of Ankara’s actions by the US President Donald Trump caused serious discontent in Washington’s political circles. Trump's support to Turks was regarded as a betrayal of the Kurds supporting the US in the region over the past five years. There were also politicians who expressed their discontent openly. In the first few days, Trump resisted and refused to support the Kurds, but later he was forced to surrender and demand that Ankara stop the operation. Later, the US government adopted a number of sanctions against two Turkish ministries and three ministers, hence putting pressure on Ankara. But when these measures proved ineffective, an American delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was sent to Ankara on October 17.
On the same day, the US Vice President and the Turkish President reached a 120-hour cease-fire agreement. In accordance with the deal, Kurdish militias (YPG and other groups) would have to retreat 32 km from the Syrian-Turkish border (Turkey's demand), while Ankara pledged to suspend the military operation, and the US government — to lift sanctions imposed by President Trump.
According to clause 10 of the agreement, the 32-km buffer zone in northern Syria was supposed to be transferred under the control of the Turkish army for joint patrols with the US military.
Americans left, Russians arrived
Operation Peace Spring had another interesting nuance. After the retreat of the American armed forces, the Kurds, through the mediation of Moscow, began negotiations with the Syrian government at the Khmeimim airbase near Latakia. As a result of negotiations, the Syrian army soon gained control of several settlements, including Manbij, Tabgu and the Tabgu military airport, Raqqa and the territories north of the city, the M-4 highway between Latakia, Aleppo and the Iraqi border, and the villages of Ayn Isa, Tell Tamer, Qamyshly along the same highway, the city of Hasake, Al-Kahtaniya, Tell Khamis and the village of Yaurubiya, as well as adjacent villages and roads connecting them along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Meanwhile, the settlements of Qamyshly, Al-Kahtaniya, Kobani and the territories to the west of the country that fell under the control of the Syrian army pursuant to the Ankara agreement were supposed to be transferred under the control of the Turkish army, as part of the 32-kilometer buffer zone.
Kurdish bargain in Sochi
To discuss the Kurdish problem, the Turkish president accepted the invitation of his Russian counterpart Putin to visit Sochi. After six hours of negotiations, the parties reached an agreement including more than 10 clauses. According to the deal, Kurds have to leave the Syrian-Turkish border within 150 hours and retreat 30 km inland, Turkey retains the right to control the 120-kilometer border strip, and the remaining 300 km between Jerablus and Iraq will be under the control of the Syrian army. In addition, a joint patrol of the armed forces of Russia and Turkey will be conducted on a 10-kilometer border strip.
The agreed period expired, and on October 27, the Syrian Foreign Ministry issued a statement announcing the retreat of Kurdish armed groups (SDF and YPG) from the Syrian-Turkish border under the Sochi agreement. A little earlier, the SDF announced their retreat from the above zone. Thus, the Operation Peace Spring is considered officially over.
Turkey has previously conducted two military operations in Syria claiming terrorist threats along its borders. The first military operation, the Euphrates Shield, began on August 24, 2016 and lasted more than five months. As a result of the operation, an area of almost 100 km between the Syrian settlements of Aziz and Jerablus to Al-Bab was liberated from Kurdish militants. The second operation (Olive Branch) began in January 2018 against the YPG, ending two months later with the withdrawal of Kurds from the Afrin region. Peace Spring is Turkey’s third military operation in Syria.
Who was the winner?
Although Ankara failed to ensure total control over the entire border strip from Jerablus to Iraq, it completed the mission with minimal losses in just eight days. Either way, the 440 by 32 km border strip from Jerablus to the Iraqi border has been cleared of the terrorist organization YPG. Kurds lost a significant part of their territories and control over the border areas. Thus, Turkey nullified an attempt to create a Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. The withdrawal of YPG from the Turkish-Syrian border and the control of the Syrian army in the remaining areas are in the interests of Ankara.
Obviously, the Turkish operation made Syria and Russia get the most out of the operation. Five years later, the Syrian army captured Manbij, Raqqa (the Syrian capital of ISIS), Qamyshly and other cities without a single shot. Meanwhile, thanks to Russians, Kurds could negotiation with the Syrian government. Russia, in fact, has become the only party to gain influence over the Kurds. Unlike last year, the Kurds are actually under Russian influence, which Moscow has long been working on.
Operation Peace Spring played an important role in the Syrian conflict as a whole. Now the US is leaving the northern border of Syria, concentrating its forces in the centre of the country, i.e. in the Kurdish-controlled Deir ez-Zor. The US Secretary of Defense said additional troops would be sent to the region, including armoured vehicles (tanks Abrahms). The objective is to protect oil fields (the main oil fields in Syria, producing 360 thousand barrels a day before the war) and to prevent their capture by ISIS.
The Kurds lost the border areas in the north but will get firmer security guarantees from the United States. Kurdish politicians now hope to claim self-government in a relatively small area. But this requires the neutrality of the key states of the region, including Turkey, which has strengthened its position after the last operation. This will not be an easy task for the Kurds. Remarkably, Damascus is Turkey’s closest ally in preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Therefore, we may well expect a resumption of contacts between Damascus and Ankara in the near future.