Turkey, for the first time, entered the Syrian war directly Wednesday, August 24, 2016 with a pledge to first, clear its border area with Syria of ‘rebels’ and second, to ensure the defeat of ISIS. Turkey sent tanks and special forces to support anti-Assad rebel offensive on the Islamic State’s only remaining stronghold on the Turkish border, Jarablus. Jarablus, for two-and-a-half years, has been under ISIS, but was captured within hours as Turkish forces, rebel groups, and supported by US air cover pushed from all angles.
Why has it taken Turkey that long to enter the Syrian conflict? There are many answers. In the initial stages of the anarchy in Syria, Turkey was blinded by its hatred for the Assad regime in Syria, and pandering to the whims of the US and its NATO allies, who desired a regime change in Syria, and who sang praise for the anti-Assad forces, calling them ‘pro-democracy forces’, allowed its borders to be violated by Jihadists from all over the world. Indeed several would-be ISIS fighters crossed into Syria through Turkish borders. Readers may recall that we condemned this situation, warning that some chaos would brew. Soon, the battles in Syria turned into something else as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant – ISIL (later ISIS or simply IS) was born. Turkey could not enter the war then, because it felt obliged to support any effort at toppling the Assad regime. It soon found itself (knowingly or accidentally) supporting ISIS. Turkey was accused of helping ISIS sell its oil and even the President and his son were implicated. Readers may recall that we had a piece on this issue too, calling on Turkey to reverse its policy on Syria’s war. But the other aspect of this issue was that Turkey was keen in not allowing the Syrian Kurds along its border with Syria to gain strength. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is battling strongly with ISIS, is considered a terrorist group by Turkey. Turkey’s fear is also that the PYD would link up with the the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK, another Kurdish group in Turkey, which has opposed Turkey and fought for autonomy for several decades). (Here we need to let readers know that the Kurds, through no fault of theirs, in the crafting of the Middle East borders, have found themselves in four different countries, in each of which they feel oppressed – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They have always dreamt of a land of their own called Kurdistan).
In the Syrian campaign therefore, Turkish motives may not cleanly overlap with that of the US. While the US supports and arms the PYD, Turkey sees them as terrorists and fights them. The Turkish incursion today may therefore, be a selfish one. It must be noted that the Syria Democratic Forces fighting the Assad regime, is dominated by the Kurdish PYD, whose ultimate goal is to connect different “cantons” to form a contiguous Kurdish territory along the Turkish border. The SDF crossed the Euphrates and eventually took the town of Manbij on Aug. 12 and seemed intent on continuing west to link up with the farthest Kurdish canton in Efrin. This is the fear Turkey habours (the fear of a strong Kurdish territory along her borders). The SDF’s growing momentum seems to have changed Ankara’s calculations, leading to the Jarablus operation. Turkey was pre-empting a situation where Jarablus would be taken firs by the PYD. At least at the start of the campaign to attack Syria, Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, noted sternly that Turkey will not accept a Kurdish entity on its border. In taking Jarablus therefore, Turkey marshalled all forces, including groups like the Sultan Murad Division, Faylaq al-Sham, Liwa al-Mutasim, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, who were moved from other rebel areas farther west, through Turkish territory, and over the border into the Jarablus fight.
The implications may be differing but impacting. The US may certainly need to win back Turkey, as a NATO ally, from the arms of Russia in the war against Assad and the ISIS. Hitherto, Turkey had focused exclusively on the Assad regime and the containment of the PYD, which the US has supported all along. How will the variables play out now, if Turkey wants to play a key role in the fight against ISIS, while countering the possibility of a united, hostile Kurdish entity along its border? How will Ankara play the Russian roulette and still hate Assad and, at the same time, work with Uncle Sam and NATO? A good strategy of making sure that both Russia and the US/NATO would need Turkey in all the geo-strategic considerations!
Secondly, Turkey could not have entered earlier, since it had a problem with Russia, especially after the downing of the latter’s fighter jet, which episode heralded the most chilling period of relationship between the two. Russia continued to provoke Turkey soon after, not only by cutting economic ties but also flying close to (or at times into) Turkish territory virtually daily, a situation that effectively made it impossible to violate Syria’s borders. Turkey could now enter Syria because it has normalized relations with Russia (and only so when it picked up a quarrel with the US and the West after the abortive coup). The Jarablus operation is therefore the culmination of a strategic Turkish adaptation, especially at a time when the U.S. is just too eager to expand its operations and partners against the Islamic State. Turkey calculates that the US would still need to tone down on its bashing of Turkey. Washington has little choice but to embrace Ankara, a NATO ally, over a controversial militia that is Turkey’s enemy. Jarablus could serve as a springboard for further Turkish-backed expansion of an anti-Islamic State buffer zone, with the calculation that the PYD would not have achieved its aim of a Kurdish territory. Meanwhile, Russia would not oppose the incursion for as long as Assad is not the immediate target but ISIS.
These dynamics have potentially enormous implications for the war in northern Syria. They may raise Turkish-PYD tensions in the short term, which the United States will have to manage and factor into its anti-IS strategy. On balance, however, Russia would not want to see any solution to the problem of Syria with a deflated Assad. Russia has insisted that the solution to Syria’s problem is a one-fist approach. Backing various elements should not be the case. Secondly, they have demanded that any solution must have Assad and his government as a variable. Nothing short of that. Russia may have miscalculated that Ankara’s feud with the US over the surrender of Gullen (the suspected master-mind of the failed coup) would inure to her (Russia’s) benefit. Turkey’s direct involvement (and at the scale it has) should be enough to anticipate the unpredictable nature of Turkey’s President, Erdogan.
PS: 1. As we write, the story is that the Turkish forces are locked in fierce battle with the Kurdish forces backed by the US. Indeed, the Us is furious that Turkey did not even inform them of the intention to take Jarblus. Under normal circumstances, both Russia and the US/NATO should have been informed. But that is Erdogan for you! President Obama has indicated that he would have a ‘troika’ meeting with Erdogan and Putin on the sidelines of the impending G-20 meeting.
PS: 2. For all to note:
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