Turkey increasingly isolated internationally amid rising criticism of Syria incursion

Friday 22/11/2019
A man tosses his shoes at a Turkish military vehicle on patrol in the countryside of the town of Darbasiyah in Syria’s north-eastern Hasakah province, November 1.  (AFP)
Unpopular move. A man tosses his shoes at a Turkish military vehicle on patrol in the countryside of the town of Darbasiyah in Syria’s north-eastern Hasakah province, November 1. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey is increasingly isolated on the international stage following its latest Syria incursion and threats to begin another intervention.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent troops into Syria on October 9 to push the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia back from the border and to create a “safe zone” on Syrian soil for the resettlement of millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey.

Since the beginning of the operation, Turkish troops and pro-Turkish groups taking part in the fighting carved out an area of 145km length and 30km depth on the Syrian side of the border, Turkey Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said. The original goal was a zone of 440km length.

Fighting largely stopped after Erdogan agreed on ceasefire deals with the United States, the protector of the YPG, and Russia, the main military ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, Turkey is finding that scepticism against its plans for Syria is growing among international players, especially after the government said it might start another incursion. Turkey already sent troops into other parts of Syria in 2016 and 2018.

Roland Popp, a security analyst specialising on Middle Eastern affairs, said: “Turkey is caught between a rock and a hard place due to its own making.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would initiate military operation in north-eastern Syria if the area was not cleared of the YPG. He was quoted by the state-owned Anadolu agency as saying that Russia and the United States had not done what was required under the agreement.

The remarks irritated Russia’s Ministry of Defence, which said it was bewildered by Cavusoglu’s statement because Moscow had carried out its obligations.

The exchange was only days after a group of countries, including Turkey’s most important Western allies, criticised the Syria incursion.

Foreign ministers of the so-called Small Group of Syria — Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States — said in a statement released November 14 that they called on “all actors in the north-east to immediately implement a ceasefire and to halt all military offensive operations.”

Without naming Turkey, the ministers voiced strong reservations about Ankara’s resettlement plans for refugees in northern Syria, which critics condemned as an effort to weaken the position of the Kurds in that region by bringing in Syrian Sunni Arab refugees. The Small Group said it opposed “forced demographic change.”

“We commit to disburse no assistance for any resettlement of Syrian refugees into north-eastern Syria that is not the safe, dignified and voluntary return of those refugees to their homes,” the statement added.

Popp commented by e-mail that the Small Group’s declaration “can be understood as a warning not to implement demographic changes inside the territory held by Turkey analogous to the ethnical cleansing of the Afrin area after the occupation by Turkish forces in the spring of 2018.” The Turkish Army took the region of the northern Syrian city from the YPG last year.

Popp added that Ankara would have to scale back its goals set for its current Syrian intervention. “Size and character of the newly occupied lands does not allow for the massive resettlement of Sunni Arab Syrian refugees there anyhow, as originally planned by Erdogan.”

Turkey is also isolated within NATO after it came under fire at a defence ministers’ meeting of the alliance in October as other members voiced criticism of the latest Syria action.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said Turkey’s operation was “unwarranted” and the latest sign that Ankara was heading in the wrong direction. “Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation,” Esper said at a conference in Brussels ahead of the meeting.

Relations with the Arab world, already tense because of Turkey’s dispute with Egypt and support for Qatar in the emirate’s row with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have suffered as well. Last month, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit led Arab foreign ministers in lambasting Turkey’s operation in north-eastern Syria as an “invasion of an Arab state’s land and an aggression on its sovereignty.”

A long-running dispute between Turkey and the United States gained new momentum with a Pentagon report saying that the Islamic State (ISIS) took advantage of both the US withdrawal from north-eastern Syria and the Turkish incursion to regroup. ISIS could prepare new attacks on the West, the report said.

Ankara rejected the report and accused the United States of supporting “terror groups,” a reference to the YPG, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Turkey while Washington sees the Kurdish fighters as the United States’ best partners in the battle against ISIS.

“Turkey’s operation to root out terror groups from its Syrian border can’t be linked to potential strengthening of Daesh,” Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun wrote on Twitter, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. He spoke of a “misguided argument” brought forward by the United States. 

Popp said the row between Ankara and its Western partners over Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 missile defence system also remained unresolved.

“In order to regain a minimum of Western trust, [Turkey] would have to promise not to activate the S-400 missile system delivered by Russia, a loss of face Erdogan won’t seriously consider,” Popp said. “Therefore, a further deterioration of Ankara’s relationship with its NATO allies can be expected.”