Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan’s Syria debacle

Erdogan’s attempt to use the Syria crisis for his own purposes may soon run aground if President Trump acts on the suggestion to create safe zones in the north

Erdogan’s Syria debacle
Erdogan’s Syria debacle

Since 24 August 2016, the date that Turkey launched its Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, military authorities have kept the Turkish public up to date on the facts in the battle that Turkish forces are waging against the forces of extremism and terror in its jihadist takfiri and separatist forms. In regular press releases on its official Website, the Turkish army posts information about the number of militants killed (over 1,500 at time of writing), the number of militants arrested (double the amount, no information on their whereabouts), and the dozens of lairs and barracks destroyed, and the quantities of arms and rounds of ammunition seized.

Keeping track of the numbers killed in aerial or artillery bombardment in those war ravaged places on the other side of the border is another matter. The numbers are staggering. Nor does there appear to be an end in sight, in spite of the serious efforts to halt the bloodshed and destruction. As for the losses for the second largest army in NATO, the toll has begun to alarm decision-makers in Ankara. It was expected that Turkish soldiers would die in the operations. But not at this rate. The pressures that the anguish of grieving families and mounting anger in general could be most unpleasant, especially at this time. So the decision from high is to keep a lid on such matters so as not to derail the drive to install a “presidential system” in Turkey by means of a plebiscite to be held in April.

This is not to suggest that the operations undertaken by the Turkish armed forces do not meet the approval of the vast majority of Turkish public opinion. No one takes issue with the right to safeguard national security or the need for the government to prioritise the preservation of territorial unity and integrity, and to protect the lives of citizens near the border with Syria, a duty that has grown more urgent with the increase in intermittent missile fire into Turkey killing and wounding dozens of innocent civilians. The problem has to do with talk of failure, even within the circles of the ruling party, and worse, the spreading belief that the repercussions— the missile fire, the millions of refugees, the destruction, the economic deterioration, and the mounting terrorist attacks — could have been avoided. The opposition certainly believes so. Six years ago it warned against a precipitous slide into the quagmire of the Syrian civil war and urged officials in Ankara to be prudent and refrain from meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries. But the ears of the powers-that-be were deaf to such advice, and today the attrition from the protracted warfare has become ubiquitously evident.

Certainly there have been successes. The victory at Jarabulus, at the beginning of Euphrates Shield, was a stunning feat. But then things started to go downhill. The executives proclaimed the march on Manbij and Raqqa, their media built up the public fervour, and then by the time the daydream had burst and more Turkish soldiers’ lives were lost, they settled for a march on Al-Bab. Now, moreover, it looks like that “conquest” is out of reach.

The balance of forces on the ground has begun to shift in favour of Damascus and the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Government troops have been steadily advancing through the countryside towards the city, without encountering much resistance from IS (the Islamic State group), which is on the verge of losing its last and most important bastion in the Aleppo province. Government forces last week succeeded in reasserting their control over three villages located about eight kilometres from Al-Bab, bringing the number up to a reported 20 villages in less than two weeks. The situation is therefore looking grim for Ankara, which had predicted a swift victory. Recent leaks from Astana report that Ankara had signed an agreement, brokered by Moscow of course, to cede the mission of liberating Al-Bab from IS to the Syrian army.

Then the search began for a graceful exit from that deteriorating and awkward situation that resulted from plans gone awry with regard to Turkey’s direct military intervention. A first indication of this was that curious announcement by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek suggesting that Ankara was now willing to work with Bashar Al-Assad. “The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad; it’s not realistic,” he said. His remarks were widely interpreted to mean that Ankara was now willing to accept Al-Assad’s continuation in power. True, Simsek quickly issued a denial, stating that his remarks had been taken out of context. However, that did nothing to alter that fact that Turkey, like it or not, will have to deal one way or another with the Al-Assad regime.

Then came the unexpected lifeline: US President Donald Trump’s call for a safe zone in Syria. Ankara greeted the announcement with unbounded relief. How long it had pressed the previous administration of Barack Obama for this demand but with no response. The excitement did not last, however. It dissipated in the face of ambiguities and generalities. What if it also includes the Kurdish regions? In fact, a columnist close to the ruling circles in Ankara suggested that such a possibility was very likely. If so, Trump’s instructions regarding a “safe zone” would be precisely the opposite of what Turkey had in mind.

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