Erdogan’s war in Syria threatens wider conflict
Beirut - One of the biggest problems the United States is facing in Syria comes from its long-time ally and NATO partner Turkey.
Its ravenously ambitious leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is striving to restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire, which for 500 years ruled much of the Arab world, Greece and other parts of Europe.
Erdogan’s obsession with power, primarily his own, and his drive to make Turkey the centre of the Muslim world once again has led him to ally himself in Syria with his country’s historical foe, Russia.
That’s a partnership that may not last amid the chaotic turbulence convulsing the Middle East and its periphery but it is dramatically changing the geopolitical landscape in the greater Middle East and hampering efforts by the United States to crush the Islamic State (ISIS).
This is most graphically illustrated in the geopolitical rivalries the United States is struggling to overcome in its effort to organise a cohesive, multi-force offensive to capture the strategic city of Raqqa in northern Syria.
The main stumbling block is that the Americans want to use the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), their most reliable local ally in the war, to spearhead the main advance on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic caliphate declared across Syria and Iraq by ISIS in June 2014.
Because the SDF is dominated by Kurdish forces, Turkey, battling its own autonomy-seeking Kurdish minority, refuses to cooperate unless the United States can hook up with an Arab-led force.
Turkey invaded northern Syria on August 24th, 2016, as part of Operation Euphrates Shield, supposedly to hammer ISIS after a series of terrorist attacks that killed or wounded hundreds of Turks.
But Turkey’s overriding strategic purpose was to prevent Syria’s Kurds from uniting their cantons along the country’s southern border into a single independent state, which could inspire Turkey’s own rebellious Kurds to intensify their 32-year insurrection in the south-eastern part of the country.
The carnage in Syria and the regional upheaval it engendered have led Erdogan to move closer to Russia, which is also using the political disintegration of the Middle East to revive old glories.
This emerging alliance between two former empires, which between the 16th and 20th centuries fought 12 wars, underlines a wider schism developing between the West and an emerging Eurasian bloc.
As Turkey has edged closer to Russia, Ankara’s relations with the United States and its coalition in Syria have come under growing strain.
Turkey, which initially sought to hasten the political demise of Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar Assad, but later went along with Russia’s strategy of keeping him in power, is now in a pivotal position in Syria. Its actions in the weeks ahead could determine whether this complex conflict drags on or is settled by political compromise.
Turkey has been steadily increasing tensions with the Americans. This is benefiting ISIS and throwing into question a planned offensive to retake Raqqa.
This is a battle that could change the course of Syria’s war and possibly trigger other lesser conflicts.
The political scrapping could also encourage US President Donald Trump to expand military forces in Syria for a major multipronged assault on Raqqa while US-backed forces in neighbouring Iraq are battling to crush ISIS in the city of Mosul. It could also instigate policy shifts among other regional powers engaged in the Syrian bloodbath, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, key backers of rebel forces battling to topple Assad’s forces.
“Much of the (Trump) administration’s planning depends on Turkey, which has very specific ideas about how the offensive on… Raqqa should be carried out,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed on February 22nd. “Since Ankara does not expect Washington to fully support its plan, it is looking to its allies in the Persian Gulf for help in advancing its regional agenda.”
This could widen the war. Erdogan “has been quietly working on a proposal that could further crowd the battlefield in Syria”, Stratfor noted.
“Ankara has long advocated giving regional Arab forces a greater role in the fight against Islamic State. Doing so would not only add enough manpower and resources to displace the (Kurds) but it would also undermine the perception that Turkey is enabling a neo-Ottoman occupation of Arab lands,” the consultancy said.
To this end, Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar in mid-February seeking to enlist their support against ISIS, even though the Saudis and their allies are already in Yemen battling Shia Houthi rebels supported by Iran.
Since unleashing Operation Euphrates Shield in August, Turkey has more than 8,000 troops in northern Syria with tanks and heavy artillery as well as air power. With its allies, it claims to hold 1,900 sq.km of territory and to have killed 1,700 jihadists.
“A stronger Arab presence in the (Syrian) fight… is imperative to Turkey’s goal to keep the Kurds in check in northern Syria,” Stratfor cautioned.
“Moscow, Tehran and Damascus will be watching carefully to see if Ankara can pull off the plan. The prospect of greater Arab involvement in the fight will only compel the opposing forces to dig their heels in deeper for an extended proxy war.”