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Turkey playing Russian roulette in Syria

EPA/Sedat Suna

Turkey playing Russian roulette in Syria

Turkey has finally directly entered the Syrian conflict. With support of Turkish tanks, artillery and fighter jets, some 1,500 fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have moved in to take over the strategic city of Jarablus, meeting with little resistance from militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS).

But the main target of the Turkish intervention is neither the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which Turkey has for the past five years done everything it could to undermine, nor IS, which it stood accused of tacitly supporting until recently. The real target of Turkey’s risky intervention in Syria are its long-time foe, the Kurds who it is desperately trying to prevent from achieving statehood since that would embolden its own Kurdish population in their quest for political and cultural recognition and endanger the unitary nature of its nation-state.

Turkey’s apparent volte-face of re-aligning its Syria policy with those of Iran and the Assad regime seems dramatic even by Middle Eastern standards of geopolitical flux. Strategically dazzled by the spectacle of the fall of one Arab ruler after another during the height of the Arab Spring, Turkey under president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially wagered on the rapid collapse of Assad’s Ba'ath regime and threw its political, diplomatic, military and logistical weight behind the Syrian opposition.

But the fall of Assad became an ever-elusive mirage. His regime has been propped up by Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Hezbollah – and has indirectly benefited from the rise of IS, which has been targeting other opposition groups more than Assad’s army. Assad has arguably weathered the worst storms of the civil war and Turkey now seems to accept him as part of the solution to the conflict, something it was never prepared to countenance before.

Meanwhile, exploiting the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of Assad’s forces from Kurdistan due to the Syrian army’s overstretch elsewhere, Syrian Kurds quickly have emerged as a coherent political-military force. They have advanced an ambitious bottom-up, secular system of self-governance based on the constitutional recognition of the ethno-religious diversity of the region.

And the more the Syrian Kurds’ project of “democratic confederalism” has been consolidated and expanded, the more Turkey has moved its strategic objective away from toppling Assad and towards containment of the Kurds.

Turkey’s u-turn on Syria

The overhaul of Turkey’s Syria policy was massively accelerated by three main events. The shooting down of the Russian bomber last winter and the Russo-Turkish military-diplomatic stand-off that ensued hugely limited Turkey’s ability to project military power inside Syria – either in support of opposition groups or against the Kurds. Moreover, deprived of Turkey’s hugely lucrative trade with Russia, Erdoğan risked the erosion of support domestically.

Joe Biden met with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the same day that Turkey crossed into Syria. EPA/Turkish presidential press office

US support for the Syrian Kurds in their highly effective war against IS troubled Turkey even more. Washington has repeatedly declared its understanding of Turkish sensitivities regarding the Kurds. But it has also refused to toe Erdogan’s line in identifying the YPG, the Syrian Kurds’ military arm, with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been locked in conflict with the Turkish state for more than 30 years and is considered a terrorist organisation by both countries.

The last straw seems to have been last month’s failed coup. Deeply disappointed by its Western allies’ lukewarm support during and in the aftermath of the botched coup, Turkey made a sharp eastward turn, restoring relations with Russia and strengthening its anti-Kurdish cooperation with Iran.

Both of these moves are driven by the geopolitical and diplomatic requirements of a decisive intervention against the Syrian Kurds – an intervention that assumed an unprecedented urgency following the expulsion of IS from the strategic town of Manbij by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). SDF’s announcement of an imminent assault on the IS-held town of Jarablus further north on the Turkish border, to which the encircled IS fighters in Manbij had retreated, seems to have decided the timing of Turkey’s intervention to pre-empt Jarablus’s capture by SDF.

Complex politics

Wars tend to be easy to start but difficult to end. In the short term, Turkey might achieve some specific military objectives, but in the long run the extent to which Turkey’s interests coincide with those of the other major players in the Syrian civil war are likely to be unstable.

The long-term interests of Russia and Iran in Syria and the new (pro)active role in the Middle East to which they seem to aspire, partially depends on a restored but relatively weak – and hence dependent – Assad regime. They are therefore likely to refrain from a full-frontal assault on the Kurds, but instead will work to undermine Kurdish attempts at creating a territorially contiguous political entity. This also serves to counter-balance Turkey.

Turkish army operation against ISIS in Jarablus, northern Syria. EPA/Sedat Suna

Syria is unlikely to remain content with the large-scale and long-term occupation of its territory by Turkish forces. In fact, Syria has formally condemned the Turkish incursion. Russia on the other hand might be interested in seeing Turkey stuck in the Syrian quagmire after last year’s military cooperation plan signed with Ukraine. Indeed, prolonged Turkish involvement in Syria might deprive NATO of the full capacities of its second largest army in its potential confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

Moreover, the abiding power of Arab nationalism might push at least some of Syria’s Arab opposition forces to reconsider their relations with Turkey whose softening position towards Assad is not to their liking.

War on many fronts

Hardened by several years of relentless and successful war against IS, Kurdish forces are also likely to pose a much more formidable resistance to the invading Turkish forces than Ankara might be expecting. They might also seek to forge tactical alliance with those anti-Assad forces that choose to oppose Turkey’s occupation of Syrian soil.

If Turkey’s intervention goes beyond a limited incursion, something statements by some Turkish military officials seem to confirm, it will also have potentially very dangerous domestic implications. The PKK might intensify its military operations and expand them to major cities in Turkey’s heartland. IS might also exploit its wide terror network inside Turkey to retaliate against Turkish intervention against its forces inside Syria. And the challenge of the deeply entrenched Gulen movement, which Erdogan sees as behind the recent failed coup, also remains very much alive.

And finally, following the post-coup purges in the Turkish military, intelligence agencies and various other state institutions, Turkey is arguably ill-prepared for a war on so many fronts.