10.10.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

On the Geo-Politics of Turkish Incursion into Syria

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Despite the fact that Turkey has been defying the US as of recently with regard to its purchase of Russian S-400 missile system, the US president has finally conceded to its NATO partner’s long-standing demand of invading northern Syria and wipe out the Kurdish militias. This is a critical decision since Kurdish militias were the main US ground allies in the war against the Islamic State in Syria. With the US now abandoning its only ground ally in Syria, a policy shift is in the air, a change that might ultimately go to Syria’s benefit. While we shall come to this point later, what is pertinent here to discuss is the factor that led the US to change its erstwhile position vis-à-vis Kurds.

There is hardly any gainsaying that the world is increasingly becoming multipolar, and Turkey being a ‘Middle Kingdom’ between two poles has been making the best use of its geo-strategic position in the emerging world order. As Erdogan said in his recent UNO speech, “the world is bigger than five.” He was referring to the five permanent members of the Security Council: Britain, France, Russia, China, and America. Perhaps he wants his country to be included as a sixth, or that the world has already changed too much for these countries to manage on their own without showing sensitivity to other powers’ interests.

As many reports in the mainstream western media have indicated, Turkey, despite its very explicit strategic ties with Russia, remains important for the US. The fact that the US, despite being so deeply accustomed to running the world unilaterally, has had to change its position reflects the necessary foreign policy and strategic adjustments that even the US is having to make in this increasingly multipolar world where a country, relatively much smaller than the US and lying on the intersection of Asia and Europe, can force a much bigger and powerful country to prioritise a smaller country’s interests.

Two things, as such, stand out. First, Turkey is no longer a pliant and a willing US partner and/or a strong adherent to the dead cold war agenda of ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union, or Russia and China in the contemporary era, although it still continues to provide İncirlik Air Base, a military airport in southeastern Turkey, which hosts fifty tactical nuclear weapons aimed at primarily reinforcing what NATO experts call ‘extended deterrence guarantee’ of their organisation against a Russian invasion of Europe. Secondly, the US, due to deep presence of Russia in the region, is no longer an external hegemon entrenched in the region, practically no longer in a position to force its policies on its partners. This means that Turkey is in a far better position to pursue its interests a lot more independently than was the case few years ago. This is perhaps the reason why Russia, despite knowing that Turkish territory can be used against Russia in any future conflict with the NATO, is still developing its relations in a way never known before to both countries.

This is something that the US cannot control. All it can do is to adjust its position to secure its long-term interests. Its decision to stand aside in the up-coming Turkish On the Geo-Politics of Turkish incursion reflects that adjustment.

On the other hand, Russia and Syria are also very much in the equation. While Syria and Russia may object to a larges scale military presence of Turkey in Syria—and both will reiterate that this presence is uninvited and has no legal basis—this objection will not turn into a practical opposition; for, a Turkish incursion and the US silence that followed together with its abandoning of Kurds might bring the Kurds closer to Syria and Russia.

Russian officials, as of recently, have been speaking of the “maximalist positions” the Kurds have adopted in their dealings with the Syrian government. Therefore, when cornered by the Turks and abandoned by the US, they might turn to the Syrian government for a settlement. This will, of course, provide Syria and Russia with an opportunity to reunify the whole of Syria, an ultimate objective that even Turkey has shown sensitivity to. A recent statement from the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said that Ankara had “supported the territorial integrity of Syria since the beginning of the crisis and will continue to do so” and that by eliminating all ‘terrorist forces’ from that region, Turkey will only “contribute to bringing safety, peace and stability to Syria.”

Also, given that Russia has been eyeing an expansion of cooperation with Turkey beyond Syria, Moscow will not object to Turkish incursion and let Ankara slip out its hands. At the same time, Moscow would want to make sure that no large-scale fighting takes place, giving rouge groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to resurface and reverse the gains Russia and Syria have made in last two years or so.

Moscow will, therefore, make its own adjustment and prefer to play a mediatory role between the Kurds and the Turks, and Kurds and Damascus in order to solidify Syrian control on all of its territories.

Given this, it is possible that a settlement might emerge out of the storm that Turkey is going to start. Moscow’s mediation might be acceptable to all the parties. Ankara, of course, would want a guarantee from Damascus and Moscow about Kurds being confined to their traditional areas and not engaging in any militant and activities against Ankara, or inciting separatism among the Kurds living in Turkey.

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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