Turkey flexes its military, diplomatic muscles in Syria
Beirut - As Turkish forces, supported by tanks, artillery and fighter-bombers, surged into northern Syria on August 24th in a long-anticipated operation that adds another dimension to a staggeringly complex war, Ankara was also engaged in negotiations with neighbouring Iran on a diplomatic initiative to end the Syrian conflict.
These two seemingly incompatible moves by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan marked a sharp intensification of his country’s involvement in the war. They also underlined the objectives of the Ankara government: Preventing Kurdish forces establishing a self-rule enclave south of the Turkish border and ending a conflict that is ripping the Middle East apart.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that Operation Euphrates Shield, arguably the largest Turkish intervention in Syria since the war erupted in March 2011, was intended to drive the Islamic State (ISIS) from the border.
That followed a suicide bombing, the latest in a wave of ISIS-inspired violence, that killed more than 50 people in the Turkish frontier town of Gaziantep.
A Turkish offensive against ISIS in its border stronghold is long overdue but there can be little doubt that the principal objective is to curb advances by the US-backed and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which holds a large swathe of territory south of the border.
The Turkish-backed Syrian rebels seized the strategic town of Jarabulus on August 24th after a fierce Turkish bombardment by artillery and air strikes against up to 100 targets and several hours of heavy fighting.
This force is expected to swing westward and push Kurdish fighters out of the territory they won east of the Euphrates river — a Turkish red line — since late 2015.
One of its main objectives will be the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, where the jihadists are surrounded by Syrian troops and SDF units. The Kurds also want al-Bab, a key link in plans to unite their cantons along the border.
Turkey’s large-scale military action comes hard on the heels of the unveiling of a preliminary agreement with Iran, with which Ankara has frequently been at odds, on what was described as the fundamental principles for ending the Syrian war.
That signals a major shift in policy by Erdogan “towards diplomatic cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria and away from alignment with the United States and its Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, observed American analyst and historian Gareth Porter.
“The common approach to a Syria settlement outlined by Turkey and Iran represent what appears to be the first significant diplomatic break in a five-year international conflict on Syria that has been immune from any real peace negotiations up to now,” he noted in an analysis on the Antiwar.com website.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim noted that the Syrian solution needs “two basic conditions: First to preserve the territorial unity of Syria and second, establishing a system of government in which all ethnicities and religions are represented”, Porter wrote.
This implies that Syrian President Bashar Assad could play a role in any transitional leadership in the country but can have no role in its future. Until now, Turkey had insisted that Assad had to go while Ankara armed his opponents.
Russia and Iran have sought to keep Assad in play but under their thumb while they expanded their influence in the eastern Mediterranean.
By insisting on Syria remaining a unitary state, rather than fragmenting into ethnic and sectarian entities, Ankara is also seeking to prevent Syria’s Kurds establishing an independent state on Turkey’s southern border that would encourage Turkey’s own Kurdish minority to pursue separation.
The Turkey-Iran initiative came a week after Erdogan repaired relations with Russia, Assad’s strongest military supporter. They had taken a nosedive when Turkish gunners shot down a Russian jet on November 24th, 2015, on the Syrian border.
It is not clear whether Turkey’s moves with Iran and Russia signal the emergence of a new bloc to cut through the diplomatic logjam that has snarled a UN effort to gather the bewildering array of groups engaged in the Syrian bloodbath around the negotiating table in Geneva.
But these developments gave notice to the United States and whoever succeeds US President Barack Obama, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, that there seems to be a new bloc emerging among key powers involved in the Syrian war that have been backing rival players in that conflict.
Iran’s participation in this initiative is critical and underlines its concerns that its expanding military support for Assad, a long-time ally, is inflicting unacceptably high losses that the Islamic Republic may not be able to sustain politically.
This also goes for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Tehran’s most prized proxy force and its bulwark against Israel.
Whatever the motivations for these partnerships, the Syrian war appears to be moving into a new and possibly more dangerous phase.