Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1310, (1 - 7 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Consequences of Turkish intervention

The Turkish military intervention in Syria raises fears of unpredictable long-term consequences, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

In response to mortar fire on villages inside Turkey, Turkish artillery began shelling the Syrian city of Jarabulus at the end of August where Islamic State (IS) fighters were deployed. It allowed fighters with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) to move on its territory, causing the landscape in northern Syria rapidly to shift.

Then on 24 August Turkish tanks crossed the Syrian border, assisting the Syrian armed opposition in expelling IS from Jarabulus. The opposition fighters managed to take Jarabulus in less than 24 hours thanks to Turkish ground and air support. After carrying out their mission, Turkish forces did not leave Syria, however, starting a new chapter in the Syrian conflict.

The stated objective of the Turkish military intervention was to expel IS from Jarabulus, a border town that has become a centre for the group and a stage for smuggling and the infiltration of foreign fighters.

But the unstated objective was more important – putting a stop to the Syrian Kurdish groups dreaming of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria, which Turkey sees as a national threat.

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arms of the Democratic Syria forces and the People’s Protection Units seek to take control of an area including Jarabulus, Manbaj, Azaz and Al-Bab to flesh out a project for a Kurdish region in northern Syria, either as Syrian Kurdistan or the Rojava Federation.

Turkey sees this as a red line that cannot be crossed. The US stood on the sidelines of the Turkish intervention, though it supports the Kurds and has in the past provided them with air cover.

US-led coalition forces did not attempt to prevent the Turkish advance, and the US did not stop Turkey from targeting Kurdish forces, which sustained significant losses as they attempted to take villages on the outskirts of Jarabulus, raising questions about a covert bond between Turkey and the US in the region.

Even Russia did not object to the Turkish intervention and did not try to prevent the Turks from targeting the Kurds, its tacit allies. Some observers described the Turkish intervention as a lesson to the Kurds, who had thought they could pursue their own projects on the sidelines of an alliance with the superpowers that have used them against IS.

Although the PYD claims to be fighting IS and likes to describe itself as part of the Syrian opposition, it was not happy with the expulsion of IS from Jarabulus and launched a media offensive against the armed opposition. For the PYD, the opposition’s control of the area means the destruction of its nationalist project.

The Kurdish forces thus find themselves in a sensitive position, with Turkey escalating its intervention and expected to put more pressure on the Kurds to push them east of the Euphrates River as part of a US-Turkish agreement. This would spell the end of the Kurds’ aspiration to link Kurdish-majority areas and the federal project of the Syrian Kurds that depends on establishing a Kurdish strip along the border with Turkey.

Although the Kurds received a painful blow from Turkey and were warned by the US not to interfere with Turkish plans, they have not relinquished their ambitions for a federal system in Syria.

While the US asked the Kurds to leave Manbij, retreat from Jarabulus, and draw back to the eastern bank of the Euphrates, they in fact occupied several villages. Turkey pressed ahead with its intervention, shelling the area and reclaiming the 18 villages taken by the Kurds as the cost of many civilian lives.

The Syrian opposition welcomed the Turkish intervention, which puts a lid on the Syrian Kurds’ separatist project. It restores popular legitimacy to the FSA, with many Syrians beginning to talk once again of building a strong opposition army with support from regional or Arab states.

The Turkish intervention has also revived the idea of a safe zone in northern Syria, which has long been sought by the opposition.

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad condemned the Turkish incursion in northern Syria and called for “coordination” with Turkey, perhaps hoping this would convince the latter to moderate its stance on the Syrian regime.

The opposition criticised the regime’s position, saying that it had allowed innumerable sectarian militias to operate in Syria under the aegis of Tehran. It was the regime that had been compelled to allow an international alliance to take over part of Syrian airspace, it said, adding that the regime had let the Russians establish air and ground bases in Syria and had unleashed the Lebanese group Hizbullah.

Michel Kilo, a leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said “Turkey felt a serious threat from the Kurds, Russia and the Syrian regime, which spurred it into its partnership with the revolution. It was natural that the partnership with the Syrian opposition would be translated into efforts on the ground to break the grip of the Al-Assad-Iranian-Russian-Kurdish alliance.”

“The Turkish-Syrian partnership is about thwarting the separatist project of the Kurds, who have imagined they could impose their own state on the Arabs and Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, as well as Turkey, Iran, Russia and the US,” he said.

Many Syrian opposition figures believe the US and Russia were on the same page regarding the Turkish military operations. Both wish to signal their displeasure with the Kurds, they say, since the Kurds have had no qualms about allying with any party that can help them further their federal project.

The Turkish military intervention in Syria coincided with a visit to Turkey by US Vice-President Joe Biden, resulting in a US-Turkish agreement and US silence on the Turkish military action.

The intervention also came just days after a meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. While the two parties failed to agree on a suspension of combat operations in Syria, they did agree to disregard Turkey’s actions.

The only statement from either party was an affirmation that their alliance with the Kurds was based on fighting IS and was not a strategic alliance. Left aside were military developments in the field and the open lines between Moscow, Tehran and Ankara.

“The expulsion of IS from Jarabulus is the result of a Russian-Turkish understanding given a Syrian regime that has lost control and a failed Turkish rebellion,” said Syrian opposition figure Said Muqbil. “But this interim alliance is not a long-term strategic one. It is limited and will not evolve into broader cooperation beyond the Syrian Kurdish issue.”

Syrian Kurdish opposition figure Midas Azizi, who does not support actions by Kurdish forces in Syria, said that “anyone who thinks the Turkish intervention in Syria was to stop Kurdish actions is mistaken. The Turkish project goes beyond the Kurdish issue in Syria and is linked to Turkey’s role in the region and the delusions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”

 “The long-term consequences will not be as easy as the Turks’ entry and rapid victory. There are a number of challenges, most importantly the length of the operation and the possibility of Turkey getting bogged down in the Syrian quagmire. There is also the question of Turkey’s ability to establish a safe zone in Syria, the firmness of Russian and US stances, and the competence of the Turkish military establishment, which has just came out of a failed military coup and the dismissal of hundreds of senior officers,” he said.

 “There is the question of the response of IS to Turkey and fears of retaliatory attacks.”

Despite the swift Turkish intervention and the rapid victory of the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition, the situation is not reassuring. The scenarios are endless given the multiplicity of states and forces active today in Syria.

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