That Turkey was forced to do yet another deal with Russia to avoid a military humiliation in Syria unmistakably showed the limitations of using military means to achieve its cardinal objectives. While the spread of COVID-19 may change the military equation and affect the possibilities of conducting direct operations, there is no gainsaying that Turkey’s plans for Syria largely remain interventionist, looking at achieving three different yet interconnected objectives. Through its direct and in-direct interventions, Turkey aims to remain relevant in a political process taking place next door. By positioning itself as an ‘inevitable partner in peace’, Turkey aims to turn itself into a regional hegemon. Secondly, by following an interventionist plan and remaining involved in Syria, Turkey aims to permanently resolve the ‘Kurdish question’ both in the region and inside Turkey itself. Thirdly, by keeping the Syria and Kurdish questions alive, Erdogan aims to bolster his political position at home and silence the increasing criticism he is facing over his Syria policy.
Turkey’s constant manoeuvers between the US/NATO and Russia illustrate the complexity of its foreign policy aiming to achieve a complex set of objectives. Its objective to set itself as a regional hegemon does not rest well with Syria, Iran and even Russia. Turkey, after all, remains a NATO member state, and allowing it to turn into a hegemon might in the long run become a stepping stone for NATO’s permanent footprint in the region—a situation that both Iran and Russia aim to prevent.
As such, whereas Russia, Syria and Iran may be able to accommodate Turkey’s interests vis-à-vis Kurds, the US would not do this. Similarly, whereas the US may be able to accommodate Turkey’s interests vis-à-vis creating a safe-zone, Russia, Syria and Iran see in this an eventual path for Syria’s permanent territorial division and an ultimate way for US/NATO presence in the region. Since Erdogan’s core interests somewhat ally with both Russia/Syria and the US, he continues to play on both sides of the geo-political chessboard i.e., eastern and norther Syria.
This was pretty evident when he recently made proposals for ‘jointly managing’ Syria’s oil.
Speaking to the journalists about his deal with Russia, Erdogan said that both Russia and the US have interest in Syria’s oil. To quote him, “I proposed Putin this: With the help of oil revenues generated there, we could assume the construction side, if you extend support in terms of financing. Let’s bring ruined Syria to its feet. And Putin said that this could be possible. I could make the same proposal to [US President Donald] Trump. Thanks to those resources, we have the possibility to reconstruct Syria instead of [letting] terrorists benefit from them.”
When we deconstruct Erdogan’s apparently ‘positive proposal’, his complex play of foreign policy becomes evident. The “terrorists” he is referring to here are the Kurdish militias that he ultimately wants to see wiped out and pushed away from Syria-Turkey border.
There is no gainsaying that the US wants to control Syria’s oil. In fact, it was not long ago when the US president said that the US military’s core objective in Syria was “protecting the oil”, although he wanted to “protect” it from falling into the hands of the Syrian military forces.
Secondly, by proposing to Putin a plan about bringing Syria’s oil under their control, Erdogan wants to strip the Kurdish militias of their critical source of revenue.
Thirdly, by proposing to jointly manage Syria’s oil and use the money to reconstruct Syria, Turkey wants to carve a permanent place and role for itself in Syria. This will help Turkey not only satisfy its somewhat hegemonic ambitions, but also give a crucial blow to Kurdish bids for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.
Control of Syria’s oil by the Kurdish militias is a problem for Turkey in as much as it gives them a sort of ‘self-governing’ capacity, which Ankara sees as a vital source of their campaign for their own state. But the bid to take control of this oil puts Turkey at odds with the US in eastern Syria where the US wants to keep the oil away from Syrian control.
Also, by depriving the Syrian Kurds of their revenue sources and by bidding to use the oil money for Syria’s reconstruction, Erdogan eventually wants to pave the way for an eventual repatriation of refugees back to Syria, evidently in those areas where Kurds are predominant. By sending refugees to these areas, Erdogan certainly wants to ‘de-Kurdicise’ the region and thus weaken their ability to wage a struggle for Kurdistan.
Whereas Russia and Syria may not have any objections to the proposal of bringing Syria’s oil under Syria’s control, whether or not Ankara will be able to increase its role in Syria will largely depend on whether and how it de-links its policy from the terror groups, including Tahrir al-Sham now rebranded as HTS, it supports in Syria against the Syrian military forces.
The HTS, as it stands, has refused to comply with the ceasefire agreement reached between Turkey and Russia in Moscow earlier this month. For Moscow, these groups remain a problem. In all its agreements with Ankara since the first Astana summit in January 2017, it has spelled out that HTS and similar groups would be outside any cease-fire agreement and remain legitimate targets.
Turkey has so far not been able to find a cure for its Idlib headache. Using oil, Ankara is therefore trying to build a new platform of cooperation that it can use to achieve its objectives through non-military means.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.