Syrian Kurds’ delicate balancing act
“The Turkish president gives the impression of attempting to play the piano with several people at the same time.”
This is how Frants Klintsevich, vice-chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee for Defence and Security, described the political choreography of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, given the twists and turns in Erdogan’s Syrian policy. Many would agree with this sarcastic remark.
It would seem that Erdogan believes that both Russia and the United States — the two main players in the region — need Ankara’s support to influence regional politics.
Keeping his idea of a buffer zone and the insistence on a no-fly zone for Syria on the table, Erdogan hopes to win simply by playing a divisive game between the Russians and the Americans.
Naturally, the Turkish president sees disagreements between Washington and Moscow over the future shape of Syria as a chance to reassert a key Turkish role, with a strategic priority blocking any Kurdish advance to establish a form of self-rule along the Turkish border.
This notion is the core element with which Erdogan agreed with the Turkish military, which he sees as necessary to forge a new nationalist alliance that he hopes will secure him one-man rule.
Erdogan has shown that he likes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach in dealing with the West, with the crisis in Ukraine an example. In many ways this explains why Turkey continues its military incursion into Syria, which many observers predict will be a long-running one.
On his way to the UN General Assembly in New York, Erdogan sounded determined to send a strong message about how fiercely he was opposed to the Syrian Kurds, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which continue to be favoured by Washington.
Is Erdogan reading the multidimensional Syrian chess game correctly? So far Russia is satisfied — cautiously — as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently declared, so long as Erdogan gives up on the idea that Syrian President Bashar Assad “must go”. Moscow noted, gladly, that Ankara was warming up to Damascus.
In that context, the main indicator will be how willing Erdogan is to ignore the Syrian advances northward, as far as he will be given a free ride on expanding, together with Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements, to the disadvantage of the Kurdish PYD/YPG forces. On that path he treads also carefully by talking to the person he sees as the good Kurd who can add to Turkish interests — Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani.
This is where many observers agree that Erdogan’s vision has become myopic. Relations between Washington and Ankara have been tense and remain so. The rift is no longer well-disguised. Erdogan did not mince words when, as he left for New York, he took shots at US President Barack Obama: “They tell us not to advance anymore but we shall. We shall go as far as we must go. We have to get rid of all threats to us in this area.”
Erdogan complained bitterly in a way revealing that his proposal on establishing a safe zone found no support from the Americans, the Germans or even from the Russians.
What seems to be taking shape, much to Ankara’s displeasure, is a shift conjured up at the White House that plans to directly arm PYD/YPG units fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) to take over ISIS’s central foothold in Raqqa.
‘”Mr Obama has told aides that he wants an offensive well under way before he leaves office that is aimed at routing the Islamic State from Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in northern Syria,” the New York Times reported.
“Directly providing weapons for the first time to the Syrian Kurds, whom American commanders view as their most effective ground partner against the Islamic State, would help build momentum for the assault on Raqqa. But arming them would also aggravate Mr Obama’s already tense relations with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The United States and Turkey sharply disagree over Syria’s Kurdish militias, which Turkey sees as its main enemy in Syria,” the newspaper said.
“The review of the military plan comes as American commanders fear that their timetable to take Raqqa was set back after Turkey recently plunged into Syria with ground forces for the first time. The Turkish offensive cut off a crucial Islamic State supply route but also rolled back the territorial gains of Kurdish militias who despite help on the ground from American Special Operations advisers have criticised the United States for allying with Turkey.”
What may end up as another grave miscalculation by Erdogan is that Washington and Moscow, despite disagreements, give the highest priority to trying to find compromises with each other. They rank this at a higher level than agreeing with Ankara.
The issue is at this utterly complicated stage in the Syrian quagmire that none of these powers would want to have the luxury of a persistent, additional warring element such as Turkey, seen as sheer annoyance, rather than productive.
Nevertheless, given Erdogan’s resolve, however erratic it may seem on key issues, the imminent phase of the Raqqa and Mosul offensives will mark a complicated, painful affair.