Turkey ponders intervention in Syria with Gulf allies
ISTANBUL - Turkey, having shelled Kurdish positions in northern Syria for several days, is considering a more-intensive intervention in the civil war over its southern border, possibly with the help of Gulf allies.
Turkish Firtina (Storm) howitzers pounded positions of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) near Azaz, a town about 8km south of the Turkish border province Kilis for at least four days in mid-February.
The shelling came after gains by the YPG, the military arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian-Kurdish group that has control of large sections of northern Syria. Turkey says the YPG advance is a direct threat to its national security.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would continue to strike targets in northern Syria for as long as it saw its interests at stake. “We will not allow Azaz to fall” to the YPG, Davutoglu said on February 15th.
Turkey considers the YPG and the PYD as Syrian branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting Ankara for more than 30 years. The PYD rejected Davutoglu’s demand that the YPG withdraw from the Azaz area.
The pro-government Turkish daily Yeni Safak reported on February 15th that a meeting of government and top military officers, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had discussed military intervention in Azaz.
For Turkey, the situation in northern Syria contains two risks, both of which could be addressed with a ground offensive. One is the expansion of the Kurdish sphere of control, which, according to Ankara, could lead to the formation of a unified Kurdish area and a first step on the way to an independent Kurdish state.
The second challenge is the advance of Syrian government troops, backed by Russian air strikes, in the Azaz region between the Turkish border and Aleppo, a development that could lead to a victory of the Assad regime in rebel-held Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city. For Turkey, which supports groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, that would be a severe setback.
While Turkey vowed to keep pressure on the YPG, Russia, a major backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, stepped up its action around Azaz. Russian missiles struck a hospital in Azaz on February 15th, a Turkish security official said, adding that more than 14 civilians might have been killed. A hospital supported by the aid group Independent Doctors Associations in Idlib province was also hit.
A Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkey was pushing for a ground offensive by the US-led international Syria coalition but was not going to send troops unilaterally. “We want a ground operation with our international allies,” the official said in February 16th report by Agence France-Presse. There were no plans for unilateral Turkish action, “but it’s hard to say what will happen in ten days”.
The official welcomed a statement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who supported the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria in a newspaper interview. Merkel’s comment was “a very good start”, the official said, adding that Ankara hoped the idea of a no-fly zone would attract more international support.
Saudi Arabia, a major Sunni power that wants to prevent a victory by Assad and his Shia partner Iran, will send warplanes to the Turkish base of Incirlik in southern Turkey by the end of February, the Turkish official said.
A senior Saudi defence official, Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, said there was consensus within the international coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) on “the need for group operations”. He said military experts would meet shortly to decide “the role to be played by each country”.
The state-run Turkish news agency Anadolu quoted Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani as saying his country was also willing to send ground troops.
The idea of a ground operation has been rejected by Turkey’s allies, at least for now. There are other sources of friction as well. Turkey’s shelling of the YPG came despite warnings from its most important ally, the United States.
The Obama administration called on the YPG to halt its advance around Azaz and asked Turkey to stop its shelling. Washington and Ankara strongly differ about the role of the PYD and the YPG.
Turkey says the groups are terrorist organisations while the United States sees them as important partners in the fight against ISIS. Angered by the US approach, Erdogan recently asked Washington to choose whether it was with Turkey or with the “terrorists”.
According to the Turkish daily Yeni Safak, the Turkish leadership is determined to stick to its position. “In international relations, you don’t have credibility if you don’t back up your diplomacy by force,” Abdulkadir Selvi, the newspaper’s bureau chief in Ankara, wrote. Turkey was a great state, he added. “They will either understand, or we will make them understand.”
Tough talk such as that has some observers fearing the worst. “We are on the brink of war,” Murat Yetkin, one of Turkey’s most respected journalists, wrote in the online newspaper Radikal.