Turkey asserts itself in Iraq and Syria
London - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seemingly invigorated by the failure of the July attempted coup to unseat him, has been asserting his country’s right to insert itself directly into the conflicts tearing apart its neighbours.
Turkish planes have been engaged in air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria, where Ankara’s local proxies have been pushing forward since they mounted a cross-border offensive in August to stop Kurdish forces taking over territory abandoned by ISIS on Turkey’s southern periphery.
Erdogan dispatched his troops to northern Iraq, ostensibly as trainers, to the great consternation of the Baghdad government.
On the diplomatic front, Erdogan has patched up relations with Russia and even mended Turkey’s strained ties with Israel.
Alarmingly, from the perspective of Turkey’s neighbours, he has referenced the 1920 National Pact that asserted Turkish sovereignty over territory as far as Kirkuk and Erbil in the east, Aleppo in the south and even Thessaloniki in present-day Greece.
This latest expression of Erdogan’s latent neo-Ottomanism is something of a rhetorical device, designed to justify Turkey’s claim to have a say in the eventual outcomes of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria rather than as a threat to expand the country’s borders.
At the same time, Turkish demands for the ousting of Syrian President Bashar Assad as a condition for a peace settlement there have become less strident. That is, in part, a reflection of the rapprochement with Moscow that followed President Vladimir Putin’s swift support for Erdogan in the wake of the July coup attempt.
The official line is still that Assad has to go. However, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim acknowledged this summer that Turkey might be prepared to sit down with Assad during a transition period. In the end, however, there was nothing to choose between Assad and ISIS, and both would have to go, according to Yildirim.
It was an instructive intervention, not just in terms of an apparent softening of the Turkish tone towards Assad but also in its assumption that Turkey would have a central role in determining Syria’s future.
Yildirim did not, of course, neglect to include the Kurds as part of Turkey’s trinity of evil alongside Assad and ISIS.
Ankara has done little to disguise the fact that those it regards as Kurdish terrorists, both in Syria and at home, are the real target of its new assertiveness. Turkey did little to confront ISIS when it was in its ascendancy but has now intervened at a time when the jihadists are on the retreat to make sure the Kurds do not take over new territory.
Turkey stood back in 2014 when the Syrian Kurds defending the border town of Kobane looked doomed to succumbing to an ISIS siege and was even accused of aiding the jihadists by allowing volunteers to reach the battlefront across Turkey’s porous border.
Since the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) followed up their eventual victory at Kobane with further advances that might have allowed them to link up with Kurdish territory in the west, Ankara has insisted on becoming involved.
That has created friction with the United States, which has backed the Kurds as the most effective force on the ground against ISIS. The Americans moved to defuse the tensions in November by overseeing a withdrawal of YPG forces east of the Euphrates, Turkey’s self-declared red line.
As the YPG moved out of the Syrian border town of Manbij after ousting ISIS and training local forces to defend the town, US special envoy Brett McGurk said the development was a “milestone” in the conflict. It may represent a short-lived respite, however.
The YPG has said it would now move on to the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’s self-proclaimed border-spanning Islamic caliphate, in northern Syria, despite Turkey’s insistence it should keep out of that battle too.
Across the border in Iraq, there has also been a measure of success in talking down escalating tensions between Ankara and Baghdad. Turkey has cast itself as the putative defender of the Sunni community and of Turkmen rights in an area of historic national interest.
The two sides now appear to have reached an accommodation in the dispute over Erdogan’s dispatch of troops to the Bashiqa camp outside Mosul.
After Turkey’s belated direct intervention in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, Erdogan is unapologetic. “Turkey cannot intervene against the threats right next to it?” he asked fellow Islamic leaders in October. “We will never accept this. We don’t need permission for this, and we don’t plan on getting it.”