Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The great game

Turkey’s land penetration into Syria, and the absence of an Arab reaction, raises questions that demand urgent answers, writes
Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Wednesday, 24 August, a few Turkish tanks penetrated into northern Syria. In the following days the number of tanks increased to 50 and 380 soldiers. The Turkish government announced that this military operation would continue until Ankara believes it has achieved its objectives. The declared objectives of the mission are to chase what the Turks call “Kurdish terrorists”, as well as fighting the group.

The Turkish military’s penetration into Syrian territories — what you may call an invasion — has been on the cards for a long time.

Last year, the Turks began requesting the setting up of a safe haven in northern Syria in addition to a no-fly zone. The alibi was that Turkey could no longer harbour more refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. Neither the Americans nor other great powers, including Russia, subscribed to the Turkish point of view.

In the meantime, the Americans began relying more and more on the Kurdish Democratic Forces, a force constituted of Kurds and Arabs from Syria, to fight Daesh (the Islamic State group). The Turkish government vehemently opposed such a strategy on the grounds that these Kurdish fighters are either members in the Kurdistan Workers Party, or supporters of a national home for the Kurds along Syrian-Turkish borders — something that the Turks will fight to the bitter end.

The Turkish move came in the context of a three-way tacit understanding among the Turks, the Russians and the Americans. A green light from Moscow and Washington to Ankara to go ahead with a long-delayed move, provided the Turks not alter the status quo on the ground — or to be more precise, the battle lines among the warring parties in Syria’s civil war. The penetration into Syria came in the wake of the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden, and after the St Petersburg Summit between the Russian and the Turkish presidents in early August. It is also interesting to note that the Turkish military deployment in Syria came after Turkish Airlines announced, in a surprise move, that it would resume its weekly flights to Sharm El-Sheikh. The announcement talked about four weekly flights to this resort, badly hit by the banning by their respective governments of Russian and British tourists. At time of writing of this article, on Sunday, 28 August, both Egyptian and Arab reactions to Turkey’s invasion have been all but absent. Nor did the Arab League issue any statement on the matter. Strangely enough, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Arab League condemned the transfer of some fighters in the Syrian opposition to Edleb, saying this contravenes international treaties.

The absence of Arab reactions reflects the paralysis of the Arab national security system, if there has ever been one. It proves that the future of the Middle East for many years to come has been determined, and will be decided, by outside forces. Two great Arab nations — namely, Syria and Iraq — are being parcelled out along ethnic and sectarian lines with the connivance of some Arab powers. In this emerging strategic context, Egypt stands indefensible, and its eastern borders threatened by future hostile forces that would not hesitate to use terrorist groups already operating in Sinai to destabilise Egypt further. The economic weakening of the country should be seen in this larger strategic context.

Is it a coincidence that Turkey occupies territories this very moment in both Iraq and Syria? Early this year, a Turkish force deployed near Kirkuk despite opposition from the Iraqi government. Ankara defiantly stressed that its forces went into Iraq according to a prior agreement with the Iraqi government. The Turkish forces are still there with the same objective of preventing the emergence of a Kurdish nation.

So far, the strategic moves of Turkey in both Syria and Iraq have not collided with the strategic interests of the United States, Russia and Iran. It is a very delicate game among international and regional powers that would not tolerate the tilting of the tenuous balance of power in the Middle East today to the detriment of adversaries. So far, Turkey and these powers have been careful. Any miscalculation on the part of Turkey would lead to the widening of the present battle lines that could well extend beyond Syria and Iraq. Both Washington and Moscow should control the future course of events in the Middle East. They have an interest in playing the balancer of power. Syria is the testing ground. So far, the two international powers have been wise enough not to enter into direct confrontation in the Middle East. Let us hope that the two regional powers, Turkey and Iran, won’t precipitate such a confrontation, either consciously or inadvertently.

Egypt seems to be powerless in the face of these fast moving events in the Middle East. From the time Turkey made clear that it was envisaging a land operation in Syria, and Saudi Arabia, not long after, said it was ready to send ground troops to Syria under American command, Cairo has kept silent. This deafening silence has continued amid Turkeys’ penetration into Syria. How to interpret this silence? Is it borne out of weakness? Is it borne out of lack of options? Is it a reflection of a well-thought wait-and-see strategy on the part of Cairo, and instead strengthening an Egyptian-Israeli meeting of the minds on how best to deal jointly with the future strategic environment in the Middle East — that is, a Middle East where the Iranians and the Turks are calling the shots with the acquiescence of both Moscow and Washington? Or is it all these factors combined that explain the absence of a clear Egyptian position on destabilising developments to the north?

Whatever the reason is, or whatever the reasons are, the last thing that the majority of Egyptians would want — and please consider me one of them — is a future Egyptian-Israeli alliance to meet future strategic challenges in the Middle East.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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