Turkey re-enters Syrian endgame with ‘smart power’

“Our operations will continue until the separatist terror organization is fully cleared from the region and around 3.5 million Syrians who are now sheltered in Turkey are able to securely return to their homeland.”

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Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan attends the funeral ceremony, in Ankara, of Musa Ozalkan, a Turkish soldier who was killed during the operation against Syrian Kurds in Afrin region. Photo: Kayhan Ozer / Presidential Palace / handout via Reuters, January 23, 2018

by M K Bhadrakumar

The UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday regarding Turkey’s military operations in Syria turned out to be like the dog that didn’t bark in the night in the Sherlock Holmes short story. There was no bark – no statement by the Security Council – condemning Turkey.

However, these are early days and the big powers are assessing Turkey’s intentions and what might be in the changing picture for them. So far, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has played a masterful game.

On the one hand, he has rallied the country’s two main opposition parties behind his decision to order military operations – a domestic consensus that gives him a free hand to maneuver abroad. On the other, he is riding the wings of Turkish nationalism, which makes it extremely difficult for the international community to pressure him. The principle Erdogan upholds – of defending Turkey’s borders – is difficult to contest. Even NATO concedes the legitimacy of the Turkish operation to protect its borders.

Afrin’s importance for Turkey is well-recognized, too. It borders Hatay and Kilis, Turkey’s Syrian border provinces, and has been the gateway to the Amanos Mountains, where Kurdish guerillas fight the Turkish army. The Kurdish fighters ensconced in Afrin have amassed a big stockpile of weapons, thanks to American supplies since 2016: multiple rocket launchers, missile launchers, 80- and 120-mm mortars, MK19 grenade launchers, US-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, reconnaissance vehicles, FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles, and so on.

Besides, Afrin district slouches toward the Eastern Mediterranean coast. The Kurds hope to create a homeland that is not land-locked. Thus, by the fourth day of Turkish operations (Tuesday), Erdogan had already expanded its scope. Turkish forces have appeared to the east of Afrin as well, and aim to push back Kurdish fighters, who currently control around 65% of Turkey’s border with Syria.

The national security council which met in Ankara on Tuesday announced: “Our operations will continue until the separatist terror organization is fully cleared from the region and around 3.5 million Syrians who are now sheltered in Turkey are able to securely return to their homeland.”

Erdogan feels emboldened by the muted international reaction. He said on Tuesday: “We have no time to listen to what other countries say about our operation. The decision to launch the operation was given by our people. The people will not give any respite to a few ignoble men on our borders.” The belligerent tone is in marked departure from his own modest claim just two days ago that he sought an agreement with Russia to commence the operation.

Of course, the breakdown of trust and transparency in US-Russia relations works to Erdogan’s advantage. Equally, the Trump administration’s declaration that Iran is in its crosshairs in Syria prompts Tehran to look away while Turkey crushes the US’ only credible allies on the Syrian chessboard.

According to Iranian reports, Kurdish fighters have suddenly retreated from their positions in the Syrian-Iraqi border regions along Deir Ezzur and Iraq’s al-Qaem border region in Western Al-Anbar, and Iraqi forces and Shi’ite Hashd al-Shaabi militia (backed by Iran) are moving in.

Indeed, if Turkey steps up its military advances, Kurds will be compelled to retreat from the predominantly Arab regions around Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. That would nullify the impressive territorial gains that the US achieved toward gaining control of the Syrian-Iraqi border (and the fabulous oil fields in Deir Ezzor) in order to block a land route connecting Tehran with Beirut via Iraq-Syria.

Russia has tried to persuade Kurds to hand over Afrin and the oil fields to Syrian government forces as a quid pro quo for prevailing on Turkey to stop its operations. Quite possibly, Kurds, thoroughly disenchanted by the US’ inability to come to their aid, may eventually strike a deal with Russia.

Russia gains in other directions too. Its acquiescence is vital for Turkey to continue with the operation in Syria. In turn, Turkey is cooperating with Russia’s prestigious project to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi on January 29-30, which is a necessary step toward national reconciliation and settlement.

Turkey is also obliged to look away from the ongoing operations by Syrian government forces (backed by allies and Russian air support) to take control of Idlib province to the west of Afrin. Idlib borders the coastal province of Latakia, where Russia’s air and naval bases are located.

If the Turkish operations in Afrin succeed and Syrian government forces take control of Idlib, Kurdish plans (tacitly supported by Washington) to create a contiguous homeland across northern Syria with access to the Mediterranean become a pipedream. This brings Russia, Turkey and Iran on the same page.

Turkish forces are seen near Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, in Syria, on January 23, 2018. Photo: Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Having said that, you can trust Turkey to hold back-to-back negotiations with the US. Interestingly, the Turkish national security council’s announcement recasting the raison d’etre of the military operation took into account discussions in Ankara earlier in the day with a visiting US delegation comprising military and intelligence officials and led by Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen.

Turkey’s non-negotiable demand will be that the Pentagon must conclusively end any sort of alliance or quasi-alliance with Syrian Kurds. The Turkish operations in Syria give Erdogan greater leverage to extract concessions from the Trump administration, since Turkey is maneuvering into a position where it can render meaningless and untenable the Pentagon’s plans to keep an indefinite military presence in northern Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkey will avoid any showdown with US forces in Syria. Turkey allows the US to use it Incirlik base in northern Syria, even as Turkish jets take off from the same base to pound the US’ Kurdish allies. The US has no option but to remain mindful of Turkey’s importance as a NATO member country, as a New Cold War with Russia and China revs up.


M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.

 

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