Stuck in Syria: Will Turkey end up losing once more?
Among the uncertainties revolving around Turkey’s foreign policy, the manner in which Ankara runs affairs along its southern border is enough to make one dizzy.
It started with the Gaza flotilla affair in 2010 and followed with one dramatic episode after another, each exposing an even more erratic move than the previous.
Now Turkey appears to be set on a new course. Following the ousting of his predecessor, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim declared that Ankara’s regional policy would now be based on increasing its friends and decreasing its enemies.
People were puzzled: What was new compared to Davutoglu’s grandly failed zero problem neighbourhood policy?
The new element involved a series of tactical moves that are aimed at establishing Ankara as a player in the ever-complex Middle East.
The picture became clear when the July coup attempt accelerated rapprochement with Russia, which Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan hopes revives the key issue that has haunted and troubled Turkish foreign policy for decades: The Kurds.
This is how we should explain the most drastic Turkish move this week. The Euphrates Shield operation, involving Turkish fighter jets and tanks in and over Syrian soil, came after Yildirim marked two more U-turns in Ankara’s line: Assad’s departure was no longer a Turkish condition for reaching a settlement to the conflict but a triviality and the most important point, at the moment, is the territorial integrity of Syria. For years Erdogan had insisted on a future without Assad, as his government had pursued a regime-change line, by supporting Syrian jihadists.
Statements by Yildirim revealed more than that. “We did this to chase out ISIS [the Islamic State] from the area and to prevent PYD/YPG [Democratic Union Party/People’s Protection Units] to fill in the vacuum, to take advantage,” he said. “The entire area, including Jarabulus, must be cleaned out of PYD/YPG. There is no other way.”
Dizziness has to do also with the visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden and Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani in Ankara, following manoeuvres that appear to signal a formation of a Russian-Iranian- Turkish axis.
Turkey’s U-turn, after Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, seems to have triggered a large-scale complex dynamic into Syrian theatre. This, however, is where the dizziness ends as it begins. The change of heart may be based on a calculation that comes not only too late but also looks too simple — and dangerous.
By bowing to Russia, Erdogan may be hoping to kill more than two birds with one stone. He may calculate that Ankara can play Moscow and Washington against each other, considering that the latter, which he is in a rift with, has a softer spot because of the distraction presidential elections offer.
By approaching and appeasing Tehran and Barzani, the plan seems to be to alienate and eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its PYD/YPG offshoots. Erdogan is also keen that ISIS remains a common target to keep the United States close enough, although ISIS’s labelling is somewhat equated with the ground forces of the Syrian Kurds as terrorists.
There are seriously missing links in all of those.
First, Russia and the United States may not have overcome their differences over the future of Syria but since the downing of the Russian jet by the Turkish Air Force in late 2015 minimised them.
For the Russians, the main issue was to be reaccepted by the Americans as a major player in the Middle East and they have come that far. So, for Putin, Erdogan’s olive branch is no more than another tool cementing his position. Ankara’s military manoeuvring space in Syria has fallen under the full control of Moscow. The operation on Jarabulus would not have happened without Putin’s consent.
There is no concrete sign that Erdogan and Putin see the aspirations of the Kurds in Syria in the same way. Barzani will not stand between his cognates and their pursuit of self-rule in Syria. The PYD/YPG commanders know that, as long as ISIS and its derivatives remain in the area, they will be under the protection of US forces, also as balancing elements against Russia.
Perhaps the most alarming part about Ankara’s U-turn has to do with attacks against ISIS. Increased bombings leave the latter to flee into Turkey, in rage, and as video footage of a bomb exploding near a wedding celebration in the Turkish town of Gaziantep shows, exposes Turkey more as a vulnerable target.
Ankara’s problem is not taking a side; it sticks to its old game of juggling with far too many balls as with the Kurdish distraction. The risk is dropping all of them to the ground.