Erdogan tests the water for a Syrian attack
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last week that his country’s patience was wearing thin because of various attacks originating from Syria and aimed at Turkey’s security or military personnel.
The tension began with a Russian air attack on a group of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham fighters along the M4 motorway in Idlib at a point that the Turkish army was supposed to clear of militant extremists. Seven terrorists were killed during the raid, in which Russia was apparently conveying the message that Turkey was failing to fulfill its commitment.
A second Russian air attack was carried out the same day in the northern Syrian town of Mare, after Kurdish separatist fighters from the YPG — which Turkey says is the Syrian branch of the terrorist-designated PKK — killed a Turkish soldier, and the nearby Turkish base had retaliated with massive bombing. Russia was responding to Turkey’s bombing.
The reciprocal attacks continued this time with the killing of two Turkish policemen in Mare by the YPG. There were other exchanges of fire across the border between Turkey and Syria, but without casualties.
The Turkish president’s warning came after these incidents. “We are determined to eliminate the threats originating from here, either with the active forces there or by our own means,” Erdogan said at a press conference after a Cabinet meeting. Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu followed suit by repeating what the president had said, but Defense Minister Hulusi Akar used a slightly nuanced narrative, saying: “In line with what our president said, we will take all necessary actions, when the time comes.”
Akar’s cautious version may reflect the difficulty of a military action in that part of northern Syria, where the air space is controlled by Russia. In fact, Russian deputy Defense Minister Sergei Vershinin said after Erdogan’s statement: “We are in favor of respecting Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is what we take into account in all our contacts with our partners, including Turkey.” Russia’s unease is abundantly clear in this statement and is indicative of the risks involved in such an operation.
How determined Erdogan is on carrying out such an operation may come out after the talks that he will have with US President Joe Biden at the G20 meeting to be held on Oct. 30 and 31 in Rome. Turkey-US relations involve several contradictions in Syria. Ankara enjoys Washington’s support in Idlib against Russian cooperation with the Syrian government, but it is at odds with the same US regarding almost unlimited support Washington extends to the Syrian Kurds.
Turkey has carried out three major military operations in Syria. It may now carry out a fourth.
In light of this background, Erdogan will probably refrain from launching a military operation until the Rome meeting. If he is disappointed at the outcome of his talks with Biden, he may still resort to such an action.
Turkey has carried out three major military operations in Syria. It may now carry out a fourth, or attack targets in Syria from bases in Turkey with long-range missiles, without physically entering Syrian soil.
Apart from the Russian attitude, there are other factors that may render a new military operation in Syria difficult. The international landscape now is not as suitable as it was on the previous occasions: The UN Security Council could not reach the unanimity to blame Syria. The Arab League’s approach to Syria’s return to the fold is more conciliatory. The Assad regime in Damascus says more frequently that Turkey has to withdraw from Syrian soil. Jordan re-opened its border with Syria. The UAE has reopening its embassy in Damascus. The international community is more accepting of Bashar Assad’s remaining in power.
If Turkey is unhappy with the terrorist attacks directed at its territory, there is already a framework to deal with such threats. It is the Adana Agreement, signed in 1998 between Turkey and Syria. It provides for cooperation between the two countries to fight terrorism. This agreement was recalled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Sochi summit of 2019. To use this agreement, Turkey has to cease to regard the Syrian regime as an illegitimate entity.
Turkey is likely to be more successful if such cooperation materializes. An even better solution would be to include the Kurds in this cooperation and seek a fair trilateral cooperation among Turkey, Syria and the Syrian Kurds.
We do not know whether at the recent Sochi summit Putin left any door open for a Turkish military operation in Syria. His attitude is of paramount importance for Erdogan’s ultimate decision.
Russia is testing Turkey’s performance in disarming opposition fighters in Idlib while it ignores the promises it made in Sochi in 2019 to expel the Kurdish fighters from Tell Rifaat in northern Aleppo.
When Turkey and Russia negotiate a solution they usually manage to meet on the middle ground, but if they engage in an arm twisting exercise Russia has a greater chance of emerging victorious.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar