Shifting alliances

September 4, 2016

Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria is strategic and likely to prolong until Turkey’s military goals are met

Shifting alliances

Syrian crisis entered another potentially dangerous phase with Turkish military invasion of Syria on August 24. This is the first major land incursion in recent months. Earlier on, in 2015, Turkey staged a limited land incursion to secure the tomb of Suleyman Shah.

The new land incursion is strategic and likely to prolong into future until Turkey’s military goals are not met.

The latest intervention comes at a critical phase in the Syrian civil war. What began with 10 tanks rolling into Syria has expanded to aerial and ground reinforcement.

Although the Turkish government has claimed its incursion was meant to flush out ISIS from Jarablus, a town on Turkish-Syrian border, most observers agree the immediate impulse behind the intervention was to halt Kurdish advances -- for Jarablus has been in possession of the ISIS for a while now without kindling the Turkish wrath.

In a further sign of its expansionist campaign, the Turkish-supported fighters are seeking to retake the town of Manbij, West of the Euphrates, which was recently captured by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), backed by the US.

The capture of the town by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), an armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) was a red rag to the Turkish government obsessed with the monomania of controlling Kurdish autonomy and land gains in Syria. This promoted immediate incursion as the prolonged occupation of Manbij allowed the Kurdish fighters to overrun Jarablus as well. This completed the arc of Kurdish controlled area bordering Turkey as well as closing off Turkish access point into Syria.

Not surprisingly, the Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad has denounced the Turkish intervention as a violation of the Syrian territorial sovereignty.

Till the writing of this article, the Turkish supported fighters have transferred Jarablus from the hands of the ISIS into the Turkish-friendly hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The handover of Jarablus to FSA represents change of track as far as Turkey is concerned. From the way FSA is expanding under the aegis of the Turkish protective umbrella, it seems the FSA is the new Turkish horse in the Syrian game. Turkish hostility to Kurdish advances stems from a perception of the Kurdish nationalism destabilising percolation into Turkey which hosts a sizeable Kurdish minority.

The Turkish incursion adds a new twist to an already complicated power game being played out in Syria. This raises the strong possibility of realignment of forces in the Syrian conflict.

YPG is thought by the Turkish government to be close to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PPK), fighting for Kurdish independence inside Turkey, and outlawed in Turkey. No wonder, in recent years the Turkish government has gone hammer and tongs after the PPK activists and sympathisers. So much so that President Erdogan has also blamed Kurdish group for perpetrating recent terrorist atrocities inside Turkey.

This line has been further pushed by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim who justified the Turkish incursion into Syria on the grounds of punishing both YPG and the ISIS.

In recent months, the Kurdish fighters have been in the vanguard of resistance both to Assad and ISIS forces. Backed by Western powers, the Kurdish guerilla fighters have made huge advances both in Iraq and Syria. Inside Syria, the Kurdish fighters control a considerable chunk of territory, raising the uncomfortable prospect of a Kurdish state long dreamed of by the Kurdish population dotted in different neigbouring countries.

Yet, Turkey is dead opposed to the notion of a Kurdish state taking hold in the region.

Other regional powers such as Iran are one with Turkey on this issue. Iran, for its own ends, has an equal interest in containing the spread of Kurdish nationalism since Iran also inhibits a substantial chunk of Kurdish population.

However, Turkey has prepared the regional stage in advance for this adventure. In recent months Turkey has considerably repaired its relationship with neighbours. The government of Turkey, after its failure to secure ouster of Hafez al-Assad, has realised the importance of renewing peace-making efforts with its neighbours, including Iran.

After making peaceful overtures to Israel, Turkey hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in June. In the same month, Turkey apologised to Russia for downing its plane in November 2015. Since the downing of the Russian plane, the Turkey-Russia relations have been at the lowest ebb. The major fall out of this was on Turkish economy that has suffered huge economic losses as a result of trade and tourism restriction imposed by Russia on its citizens travelling to, or doing business with Turkey. (Russian tourists contribute to the Turkish economy in a big way.)

The opening to Russia was needed after souring of the Turkish-US relations following the failed coup. The Turkish government has accused the US of indirectly fomenting the coup by sheltering the alleged coup master Fatehullah Gullen.

Turkey’s embrace of Russia and Iran is also facilitated by the fact that both countries were quick to condemn the coup, unlike other European countries or the US. Sensing this about-turn in the Turkish-Russian relationship, the US Vice President Joe Biden made his own dash to Istanbul to address Turkish sensitivities over Kurdish advances in Syria. Biden voiced his support for the Turkish incursion and asked Kurdish forces to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates river as agreed between the US and SDF.

Although the US has supported expulsion of the ISIS from Jarablus, it is growingly worried about the Turkish-backed combat with the Kurdish forces in Manbij and elsewhere. To lessen tension, the US has also unsuccessfully arranged for ceasefire.

On the other hand, Russia seems to be going along Turkish policy since its condemnation of the incursion was merely ritual.

The Turkish incursion adds a new twist to an already complicated power game being played out in Syria. This raises the strong possibility of realignment of forces in the Syrian conflict. The Turkish invasion also points to some convergence between Russian, Iranian and Turkish positions on the future of Syria.

Turkey already seems to have dropped its insistence on the overthrow of Bashar-al-Assad. On the other hands, the Turkish and US position are likely to diverge on the role of Kurdish fighters and their larger role.

Shifting alliances