Is Ankara afraid of being invaded?
The Syrian war, which began nine years ago, marks the first time that Turkey’s air force and artillery has targeted Syrian regime forces and Iranian militias.
Turkish F-16 fighter jets or drones would not have entered Syrian airspace — where Syrian, Iranian and Russian defenses are stacked — had Ankara not felt confident that they were under the protection of American forces there.
Furthermore, Russia, which gave Israeli fighter jets the freedom to bomb Iranian and Hezbollah positions in the vicinity of Damascus, did not intercept the Turkish air force, which shot down the Syrian regime’s Russian-built Sukhoi Su-24 jet fighters, or Turkish drones that targeted the regime’s armored vehicles.
From his side, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced his intention to travel to Moscow for a meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, whose spokesperson has said that Russia does not want to expand the war zone.
What has worried Erdogan is the move north by Iranian and Syrian forces, which suggests that, not satisfied with expelling armed factions and recovering the rest of northern Syria, they intend to invade Turkish territory. Ankara has, thus, responded to the perceived threat by reiterating its obligation to defend its borders and citizens.
As for why Damascus and Tehran seem to want to expand the conflict zone northwards and, perhaps, invade southern Turkey, is based on the same justification Turkey gave for its invasion of the Syrian north last year; i.e. to establish a “safe zone” inside the Syrian territories, under the pretext of preventing the Kurds from attacking Turkey. The Damascus regime’s and Iranian forces might then decide to cross the border on the pretext of pushing armed groups, including Syrian and foreign fighters, out of Syria; thereby weakening Turkey and getting rid of millions of Syrians who oppose the regime.
Erdogan is now paying the price of his delay in military intervention, and for getting closer to the Iranians and Russians at the expense of the Syrian opposition.
Ankara has discovered that all the agreements on Syria it reached with Iran and Russia in Sochi over the past two years has come at the expense of its own interests, and finds itself losing out. This is why it has fallen back on its alliance with the US and asked Washington for support.
The US opposes the recent agreements about Syria and has criticized the Turkish position. Indeed, Washington demands that the Syrian opposition be given a role in the country’s government, and that Iranian forces and their militias be expelled from Syria. Perhaps, this explains the resumption of fighting in Daraa, in southwestern Syria, near Jordan, after nearly two years of peace. This could distract the Syrian regime, which has moved most of its forces to the north.
Erdogan is now paying the price of his delay in military intervention, and for getting closer to the Iranians and Russians at the expense of the Syrian opposition. A cursory look at the map shows that most of the fighting is within a few miles of the Turkish border.
In the past few weeks, the Syrian regime’s forces and their allies have launched aggressive and destructive operations in Idlib province and its surroundings. The Turks did nothing but issue denunciations; and as a result, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee toward Turkey.
Ankara does not have time for further prevarication. If it does not act to defend Idlib and Syrians in the areas adjacent to its territory, the fighting will spread; and millions more people will be displaced and pushed across the border and into Turkish cities.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed