04.05.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Turkey’s “Safe Zone” Politics is Not Over Yet

1655018While the conflict and conflict resolution in Syria is largely beyond the question of Balkanizing it into “zones”, Turkey’s “Sultan” continues to harp on the need to create “safe zones” in Syria as a means to “protect” refugees. While this is what Erdogan and his team have officially been saying, the reality is that Turkey and its Gulf allies want to use these “zones” to protect the so-called moderate terror-operatives that have been badly hit by the Syrian and Russian military operations. Apart from it, by creating such a zone along Turkey-Syria border, Erdogan aims at pre-empting the coming into existence of any virtual Kurdish controlled region. Hence, Erdogan’s relentless campaign for “zones.” The latest push in this behalf came on April 23 when Germany’s Merkel expressed support for it.

In fact, it is the fear of Kurdish power that has largely unsettled the Turkish “Sultan” in his luxury palace. Kurds have been one of the most successful non-state force fighting the self-styled Islamic State since the beginning of the conflict. Given their success against ISIS, it was but natural for Russia to develop strategic, and war-time, relations with them. Germany’s support, although it lacks any credibility, has come at a time when Russia has already announced its support for Kurds in terms of placing its own troops along with Kurdish fighters and supply of weapons.

This is yet another stroke of successful diplomacy as far as Russian position is concerned. Before Russian military operations in Syria, Kurds had no standing in the overall dynamics of the conflict in Iraq and Syria. Since the beginning of Russia military campaign, not only have Kurds been included as a party in the peace-process regarding re-ordering the Middle East but their glorious efforts against ISIS have also been recognized globally.

While all this is happening on the ground, the U.S., which has been supporting Kurds too, is clearly alarmed at the latest development. Wall Street Journal noted in its report of April 21:

The Russian government says it has sent troops to fight alongside Kurdish units in northwestern Syria and is providing weapons to Iraqi Kurds in a tactic that could upstage a long-standing U.S. alliance with the stateless ethnic group and increase Moscow’s influence in the region.

Turkey, as could be expected of it, is also alarmed by this particular development. Not only does it see Russia closing in on Turkey-Syria border but also the possibility of a sort of autonomous Kurdish region coming into existence in near future—a region potentially stretching from the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea.

This is really a worrisome development for Turkey. As a matter of fact, Kurdish is the first language of a fifth of Turkey’s citizens, and Kurdish fertility is double that of the rest of Turkey, so that ethnic Kurds will comprise half the country’s young people a generation from now. It would, therefore, no longer be possible for the Arab imperialists to deny Kurds a fully independent state. The only thing that can therefore work to their advantage at this stage is territorial division of Syria. Only then can prospects of an independent Kurdistan be pre-empted.

However, notwithstanding Turkey’s concerns and Germany’s support, Merkel’s support does not mean much when it comes to the ground realities of Kurdish position and the support they themselves have been receiving and continue to receive from the West. Apart from the U.S., Germany itself has significant presence among Kurds. It has more than 100 military advisors in Iraqi Kurdistan training the Kurdish Peshmerga militia and has given the Kurds light arms.

While Germany cannot do much to actualize Erdogan’s objectives, there is very little, next to nothing, which Turkey itself can militarily accomplish on its own. This is due mainly to the fact that Russia and its allies control a lot of territory on the Syrian-Turkish border. And the creation of a “safe zone” would require control of the local skies, which Russia now dominates with the deployment of its extremely effective S-400 air defense system. As such, neither Turkey nor NATO would like to ‘test’ the effectiveness of S-400 missiles through any deliberate provocation, especially the kind of which Turkey had attempted earlier when it shot down a Russian jet inside Syrian air-space.

However, as the war against ISIS goes on and as Russia extends its support to Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, the manoeuvering space Turkey and its allies have continues to shrink day by day. This is evident from how Russian support has allowed the Iraqi Kurds to operate rather independently of the Iraqi government. For instance, until recently Iraqi Kurds were almost autonomous in almost every aspect of politics accept in terms of access to weapons. However, with Russia now directly supplying weapons to Kurds in Iraq, they are now completely independent of the government in Baghdad, as also of the overarching influence of and dependence upon the U.S.

Therefore, as Kurds move from being a non-entity to a participant in Syrian peace process, the cause of worry for Erdogan is, as can be expected of it, likely to grow into a sort of political agony. What Turkey is doing by working on the plan to divide Syria goes against the tide of time. Erdogan’s reluctant friends in European capitals are only making the situation worse, by expressing pseudo support, for it.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.