Turkey has launched a ground operation across the border into northern Syria in an attempt to drive US-backed Kurdish militia out of the region. The Kurds, integral to the fight against Daesh, have shown themselves to be the most effective of Syrian rebel forces; an ally that the US is not likely to abandon easily. To Ankara, the formation of a leftist Kurdish statelet on its southern border is a red line and a direct consequence of the upset in the balance of power caused by the Syrian civil war.
Erdogan considers the YPG — the Kurdish People’s Protection Units — and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, as branches of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984. As a critical component of the coalition that liberated Raqqa, the YPG has considerable US support. The Americans were clear that they wanted the Kurdish fighters to be part of their proposed 30,000-strong northern border protection force — which was later retracted. This would have given them control of movement across the Syrian-Turkish frontier and ergo an unbroken link between the Kurds on either side of the border.
The Turks have a right to be riled; Operation Olive Branch comes as YPG missiles fired from Syria hit the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on Sunday. Troops have entered the Afrin area after considerable bombing by Turkish jets, which US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has stated Ankara was “candid” about. How long Turkish forces remain, and indeed how far the US is willing to go to demarcate a semi-independent territory for the Kurds, will be key facets of the conflict and any potential escalation.
Alas, as with the rest of the Syrian conflict, the operation is infinitely complex. Turkish tanks have been supported by the Free Syrian Army, some Qatari-funded and the remainder by other regional powers. The airspace over Afrin is controlled by Russia, which, following a warming in relations between Ankara and Moscow, seems to have given its tacit assent to the campaign. The US finds itself caught between allies: The Kurds, who have proved so useful against Daesh, and the second-largest army in NATO in the Turks. As the Iranian-backed Syrian regime warned Turkey against the incursion, it is hard to share Mattis’ optimism that “we will work it out.”
Turkey’s stance must be viewed in the context of its domestic policy. With an election on the horizon, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party must be seen to be taking action. Erdogan’s fiery weekend speech appealed directly to the AK Party’s members and was markedly different to his reaction to the downing of a Russian fighter over Syria in 2015. In some respects, reflective of the strategic ground the US has given up in the Middle East, again a regional power is more concerned with Moscow’s reaction than that of Washington.
Developmentally, modern day Turkey is decades ahead of its Arab neighbors. However, increased interaction and potential embroilment in Arab affairs risks Turkey’s hard-won stability and prosperity. Former President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk famously warned his successor of five potential political pitfalls, instructing him not to get involved in Arab issues. Interestingly, voices within the ruling party now suggest otherwise, with Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekci saying on Sunday that territory in northern Syria was a responsibility entrusted to Turks by their grandfathers and that Turkey was obliged to restore peace in the area. Such designs on regional hegemony illustrate the potential for further conflict, as opposed to indicating that the most recent engagement was an act of self-defense.
In light of its cross-border offensive, Ankara will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope to avoid international escalation and the very real prospect of retaliation by Kurdish groups across the Middle East.
Zaid M. Belbagi
A swift military victory would suit Erdogan well with respect to the November 2019 elections, but further incursions into Manbij or Kobane could prompt a response from the US and a souring of relations. Russia, which has a military presence in the area and cordial relations with the Kurds, will play a key role in the coming days. Indeed, its foreign minister was only too keen to explain that it was US policies that had infuriated Turkey.
With the potential of another front opening in Syria’s multi-sided conflict, Turkey has found itself drawn into a diplomatic maelstrom, which could drive a wedge between it and its NATO allies. With more than half a million Syrians dead, 5.4 million refugees and 6.1 million internally displaced people, the Middle East will not see stability until the conflict is resolved. Yet with Kurdish groups behind the bombings of civilians and security personnel in Istanbul and Ankara, the government finds itself obliged to respond.
Washington’s decision not to come to the aid of the Kurds could, in time, stem the flow of American equipment to them, which may one day be used against Turkey. However, Ankara will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope to avoid international escalation and the very real prospect of retaliation by Kurdish groups across the Middle East.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid