29.08.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Turkey’s Armed Intervention In Syria Defies US

345345354While the U.S. vice president Joe Biden’s high-profile recent visit to Turkey was expected to yield “significant results” with regard to preventing Turkey from re-engaging with Russia in Syria and work towards the development of a working, if not an altogether strategic, alliance to defeat the self-styled Islamic State, Turkey’s solo march into Syria and the treatment accorded to Biden (read: a deputy mayor received Biden at the airport) clearly signify Turkish mind-set vis-à-vis the U.S. in particular and the West (NATO) in general. The visit, as such, has been largely described as “pointless.” The irony hidden in all this saga can be gauged from the fact that just when Biden’s plane was landing in Turkey, Turkish Special Forces had entered Syria.

Some recent developments have clearly pointed out how Turkey is re-positioning itself in the region. Although it is still pursuing the same objective i.e., prevention of the making of Kurdistan on its borders, it does not seem to be finding it feasible to achieve this objective as a NATO ally. On the contrary, its current policy seems to be taking into confidence the biggest stakeholders, Syria and Iran and Russia, and join them in maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity as a means to prevent the establishment of Kurdistan, which, if comes into existence, will inevitably threaten Turkey’s own integrity too. An alliance between Turkey, Syria, Russia and Iran, therefore, does make all sense, notwithstanding that certain gaps, especially with regard to Assad’s future, continue to exist.

The only logical explanation we can give about Turkey’s military ingress in Syria is that Turkey’s intervention in Syria to overthrow the Bashar Al-Assad regime has failed, but then, damage control demands continued intervention in newer form(s). Turkey has realized that a weakened, destroyed and fragmented Syria would become a liability for Turkey and a gateway for various terror networks to cross into Turkey and destroy it too.

If the report is true that the deputy head of the Turkish intelligence travelled to Damascus on Sunday to discuss with the high-ranking Syrian security officials the security of Syria’s northern regions, it only dramatically underscores an emergent convergence of interests. Equally, if Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had to travel to Tehran on last Thursday, August 25, for a sensitive conversation, because phone lines have become so very insecure and Big Brothers might eavesdrop, it only shows how there are wheels within wheels.

That Turkey has turned to the Russia led alliance in Syria is a fact that largely owes its existence to the U.S.’ double game in the region that Turkey happens to be a victim of as the U.S. has practically left all the space for Kurds to expand towards Turkey. By sending its military, Turkey intends, in plain terms, to send the Kurdish militia packing across the Euphrates River, which is its ‘red line’.

Turkey had obtained assurances from the U.S. in May that once the IS is defeated in the northern Syrian city of Manjib, the Kurdish militia on the ground would be sent back to the eastern side of the Euphrates river from where they came. But the Kurds instead seem to take their campaign further westward as per their own master plan to bring all of northern Syria’s border regions under their control and establish a unified Kurdistan stretching from Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean coast.

While Washington was ambivalent over Turkey’s ‘red line’, or it was deliberately provoking Turkey notwithstanding (read: last weekend, the US fighter aircraft actually warned Syrian jets against attacking Syrian Kurdish militia which is consolidating its grip on the oil-rich town of Hasakah), Turkey has decided, finally, to present Washington with a fait accompli. As such, within hours of Biden’s departure from Turkey, Secretary of State John Kerry scrambled to inform Ankara on phone that Kurdish militia will retreat to the eastern side of Euphrates. “Kerry emphasized that the PYD/YPG forces have been withdrawing to the east of the Euphrates,” a senior Turkish official was reported as saying by the Turkish media.

However, despite the U.S.’ assurance about respecting Ankara’s ‘red line’, Ankara continues to maintain that the operation is equally directed against the IS, leaving Pentagon to grind its teeth and helplessly watch its only reliable ally in Syria, the YPG, being made mishmash. What else would explain the crisis of confidence between the US and Turkey?

That the strategic ambiguity that descends over the future trajectory of Turkish-American relationship continues to loom large is evident from the fact that within a day of Biden’s visit, Turkey disclosed that the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov is visiting Ankara to discuss “military cooperation.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also dropped a heavy hint that Russian President Vladimir Putin may visit Antalya next week on Erdogan’s invitation to watch a football match. Indeed, Turkey gave prior intimation to Moscow and Tehran regarding Operation Euphrates Shield. The Moscow reports said Turkey had “coordinated” with the Russian military.

By sending its own troops to Syria, Turkey seems to be taking the responsibility for taking control of the territories being liberated from IS. This is in part a part of the plan to deny YPG any control in the region. Hence, the sense to fill the void by placing its own troops. Turkey does not wish to see a contiguous YPG-controlled territory running adjacent to its 911km border with Syria, and considers this a national security priority because it views the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as one and the same. Although the US is also fully aware of this fact, it still insists that since there are no other ground forces they can rely on in the fight against IS, they will continue to train and back the YPG, much to the frustration of Turkey.

Arguably, it is the Kurdish question that has led to an extensive review within Turkey with regard to its previous policy towards the war-torn country. Other aspects have compounded now as well. Where this re-positioning demands new terms of relations between Turkey and Syria, Turkey also wants to promote a government that ensures Syria will remain a secular country with genuine power-sharing that disallows domination by any ethnic group or region.

While this renewed stance on Syria takes it away from the objectives the U.S. and its allies, notably Saudi Arabia, have been seeking since the beginning of the conflict, it does it a bit closer to Russia and Iran. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has revamped its efforts to facilitate Kurds in terms of providing arms and finance. Although the stated objective is to use them against Assad’s forces, this programme will ultimately run counter to Turkey’s interests too. The gap between Turkey and the US, as also its allies, as such, would further widen, leaving enough scope for Russia and Iran to cash in on it.

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

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