05.03.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Turkey Starts Playing Dangerous Games in Syria

56324234234324As Erdogan inches closer to bringing a fundamental transformation to Turkey’s political system, his foreign policy is also starting to show signs of a big reversal. It seems that Turkey’s “NATO memory” is back and is forcing it to look towards its ‘original home’, the West. A series of incidents occurring inside and outside Syria have clearly shown that Turkey is not on the same page with Russia and Iran with regard to the resolution of conflict in Syria. It has revived it “safe zone” strategy, has already started to oppose Iran in the Russian led Astana process and Turkey-backed militias have picked up a fight with the Syrian army, marking a second clash of this nature in last one month only. Whereas these developments reflect Turkey’s drift away from the Astana peace process, these incidents also reinforce the fundamental truth of Turkey’s political and strategic position as the second biggest NATO member.

As it stands, Turkey’s own “safe zone” strategy appears to bode well with the US objective to capture Raqqa. Turkey’s defined target for the “safe zone” to be created in Syria covers an area of around 5,000 square kilometers. To achieve this, its military operations need now to change direction toward the east and target Raqqa.  And as reports have emerged, Turkey and the US are actively discussing at the moment the modalities and logistics of a Turkish military operation aimed at liberating Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the Islamic State. The Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim did indeed discuss the Raqqa operation with the US Vice-President Mike Pence this weekend at the Munich Security Conference.

It will be a major military operation with tanks, armored vehicles and artillery. Turkey seeks US Special Forces participation, which will also serve the purpose of deterring Russian intervention, apart from weakening the Syrian Kurds’ drive to create an entity in northern Syria. As it stands. Turkey has already started to move its military forces to the Syrian border with the declared objective of extending operation Euphrates Shield to Raqqa.

Clearly, things started to change only when the US and Turkey decided to mend their relations. Notwithstanding the objective and the ambitions working behind the up-coming Raqqa operation, its attainment is going to be a lot harder than it looks.

As it stands, things are heating up: On 11 February, a spokesman for the Turkish Government said that the Turkish Army would halt its advances once reaching al-Bab (as agreed upon with Russian president Putin) and had no ambition in moving onto al-Raqqa. Immediately, Erdogan came out with a counter-statement saying: “There might be a miscommunication. There is no such thing as stopping when al-Bab is secured. After that, there is Manbij and al-Raqqa.”

This statement, as it could be, was the beginning of the end of both Astana II and Geneva IV. Unsurprisingly, the Russians responded by pushing their Syrian allies toward al-Bab from its southern countryside, taking up positions about 2 km from the city. The message implicit in this manoeuvre is clear: a Turkish advance on Raqqa would push them (Syria and Russia) towards al-Bab. If that happens, it would imply the end of Erdogan’s safe-zone project. Besides it, Russia and Syria have already started to prepare for a possible offensive on al-Raqqa as well, reminding Erdogan that the city continues to be off-limits for Turkey’s expansionist ambitions.

Notwithstanding the stand-off situation between Russia/Iran and Turkey, the normalization taking place between Turkey and the US seems to have started to take place in the wake of a major regional re-alignment the US has started to put into effect.

It was, therefore, not just a coincidence that Turkish President’s anti-Iran remarks came at a time when he was visiting Gulf countries. In an apparent attempt to appease and draw them in its ‘new’ Syria plans, Erdogan said that “some people want both Iraq and Syria to be divided. There are some that are working hard to divide Iraq. There is a secretariat struggle, a Persian nationalism at work there. This Persian nationalism is trying to divide the country. We need to block this effort.”

Again it was not just a coincidence that these remarks came only a week after Trump and Erdogan talked for the first time on phone. The American visitors to Ankara have since then included CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and US senator who heads the Armed Services Committee, John McCain. Similarly, the US visitors to the Gulf region in the past fortnight include Mike Pompeo, John McCain and Defence Secretary James Mattis, who were there to forger fresh bonds to tackle threats (read: Russia, Iran and Syria) to their national interests.

Again, it was in the same spirit that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu took the gloves off at the Munich Security Conference, accusing Tehran over “sectarian policies” in its bid to convert Iraq and Syria into “Shia.”

All of this explains why Astana II did not go as well as the first round of talks and why Geneva IV might face the same fate. While the Turks downsized the weight of their delegation in Astana, signalling their gradually occurring distance from the process, the Russians formally objected to the Turkish proposal of “safe zones”—something that clearly bodes ill with the overall peace process.

With Turkey thus backing out of the process, the Syrian opposition has also started to talk un-real things. Marking its fist major twist and a potential turn around, its representatives have (ridiculously) accused the Syrian government of having ties to Daesh.

If nothing else, these remarks are aimed at paving the way for breaking out, following Turkish lead, of the Astana-Geneva peace process. Were these remarks to lead the opposition once again to start making the (un-real) demand for Assad’s exit, things will be back to the square one in Syria and conflict will regenerate as Assad’s exit continues to be a non-starter that will automatically be rejected by the Russians and the Iranians as well.

On the other hand, such a situation might push them to prefer sending more messages to the Turks through the Syrian battlefield, than accommodating them in toto. Sensing a possible Turkish drift, Russia has already started to engage Syrian Kurds in dialogue, sending the Turks yet another message about the response and the risks it (Turkey) might have to deal with in the wake of backtracking on the hard-fought and hard-earned progress made so far in Syria.

By pushing Russia and Syria towards Raqqa and Al-Bab and by forcing them into an alliance with Kurds, Turkey will end up inflicting a self-defeating would. Not only will it not be able to achieve the so-called “safe zone” in the wake of Russian presence in the territorial stretch of the proposed zone, it will also have to deal with a much stronger Kurdish militia both within and without Turkey.

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