The Turkish government still sees the downfall of the Assad regime as the No. 1 priority. Washington is most concerned with the battle against ISIS. Is there room for an alliance?
ISTANBUL — The balance of power in Syria has shifted yet again. Some people may be encouraged by the train-and-equip agreement signed between the United States and Turkey to support the opposition; they may raise their hopes in the fourth year of the Syrian crisis that the democratic revolution train is finally back on track. Some people may still dream, with the 15,000 strong opposition army being trained over three years in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is time to go pray in Aleppo or Damascus.
But most of all, it is time to wake up! Those prayers will not be answered.
So, what should we make of the agreement between Ankara and Washington to back the rebels? It was known that the U.S. and Turkey did not see eye-to-eye on neither the scope nor aim of the plan to train and equip the local forces fighting against the Assad regime.
Barack Obama's top priority now is not bringing down Bashar al-Assad, but combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS). The U.S. sees the fighters to be trained and equipped as the land forces of the operation that will be launched against ISIS.
Turkey's Justice and Development (AKP) party led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, persists in its claim that taking down dangerous organizations like ISIS cannot happen unless the Assad regime is first toppled.
Even if Washington has made it clear that it will not be doing Turkey any favors, there is still room for flexibility and the pursuit of common interests. This was voiced recently by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki: "Obviously, the program is focused on ISIS, but we certainly expect them to use their training and their equipment also to continue the fight against the regime."
This is inevitable as the war looks ever more like a quagmire, indeed with the the opposition forces under serious attacks. Obama's strategy can also be seen as nothing further than allowing the opposition forces to hold their ground, and forcing Assad to compromise and focus some of its power in fighting ISIS.
Who gets trained?
Another disagreement between the two countries was who would choose the people to be trained. I talked to an opposition representative who preferred to remain anonymous: "Turkey was favoring the groups close to Ankara, insisting on being the one who chooses the personnel. The U.S. had no intention of leaving the initiative to Turkey, which it held responsible for the strengthening of violent and sectarian groups."
So both the CIA and Turkish forces will propose groups to be trained, and will need the approval of the other — and vice versa. So at the end of the day, we cannot say that there is an agreement that says "target Assad first."
So, assuming this program will continue as planned, is it possible to create an opposition military force strong enough to hold the liberated areas, and eventually capture new territory?
First, it is impossible for the new army to be established in the short-term that would change the current situation on the ground; and certainly not while the Assad forces are about to close the siege around the opposition forces in Aleppo, as well as break the 18-month-long opposition siege around the western villages Nubbul and Zehra, and cut the supply lines from Turkey.
Only one-third of this army will be trained in Turkey. It is probable that the soldiers to be trained in Turkey will be sent to the northern front while the ones to be trained in Saudi Arabia and Jordan are to fight in Damascus and the southern front.
Soldiers along the Turkish-Syrian border — Photo: Mert Macit/Xinhua/ZUMA
It is an impossible dream to claim that this army will maintain its moderate incarnation, and keep its distance to groups like the al-Nusra Front which has nothing to offer that is different than ISIS.
I interviewed Ahmad Jakkal of the Syrian National Coalition and opposition representative Fevzi Zakiroglu in Istanbul. Jakkal said while there is the fact that the moderate opposition becomes radicalized in time and changes sides quickly, there are those in the field who do not and claimed the new army will be formed from these people.
"The people who will be chosen will not have radical tendencies, these people will not have ties to groups that have different goals," Jakkal told me. "Moderate Muslims, secular men and people who accept Syria as their homeland will all be trained."
Eyes on Aleppo
Zakiroglu said it would be futile to try to build an army aimed at alienating the Islamists. "Over the past four years, Islamic sensitivities have been on the rise among the people – both thanks to al-Nusra's influence, as well as a natural result of the war," he explained. "The project would be stillborn if a purely anti-Islamist army was the goal. A national army but with Islamic sensitivities would work."
Zakiroglu believes a properly paid army with such qualities would also be attractive for the fighters who are currently with al-Nusra and other groups. Neither Jakkal nor Zakiroglu believe the new army can make major changes in the short term.
The fate of Jamal Maruf and his 20,000 soldiers, who had been praised by the U.S. for being "moderate," tells us enough about the future of the moderate project that Obama himself referred to as "fantasy."
Maruf lost on all fronts to al-Nusra and currently has retreated to a base at Reyhanli, Turkey. The rhetoric of many groups who still manage to exist in Syria, including the Turkmens directed by the Turkish Intelligence Agency, keep getting closer to the extreme Islamists.
Truthfully, whether Turkey has a stake with the moderates or not is up for debate. Turkey was the forerunner of those who were disturbed when the U.S. included al-Nusra on their terrorism list. Turkey was forced to recognize the group as terroristic only after the group paid homage to al-Qaeda and entered the UN’s black list.
The newly announced train-and-equip program may wind up as just cold comfort against a nightmare scenario that Turkey fears: The Syrian Military, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, may shut down the area between Handerat and Leyramun which acts as the lifeline to the liberated area at Aleppo. This would turn the area to an open air prison and the revolution project would thus stand to suffer a mortal wound.
This would be followed by the opposition forces pushed towards the Turkish border, forced to take refuge in Turkey with their arms just like Jamal Maruf did. How can Turkey protect the buffer zone it established within the rules of engagement when the Syrian army approaches the border?
This is why Turkey needs an opposition army to hold the buffer zone before things take this turn toward the worst-case scenario. No wonder President Erdogan has said to forget Kobane and look instead at Aleppo.