Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s Syrian gamble

Last month’s Turkish bombardment of Kurdish strongholds in Iraq and Syria may be a prelude to wider operations to reverse growing Kurdish autonomy in the region, writes David Barchard

A new chapter has opened in Turkey’s military operations in Syria and Iraq. It is one whose long-term outcome is very difficult to predict, but which poses a formidable challenge to the Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria and perhaps also to the US and Russia. It is likely to create a diversion from the work of the US-led coalition just as it is poised to take the Syrian town of Raqqa, the Islamic State (IS) group’s de facto capital.

Late last month, Turkish air force fighters struck at the Kurdish outposts of Sinjar in northern Iraq and near Mount Qarachok in Syria, killing around 70 militants in Syria and five Peshmerga fighters of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil, which is an ally of Turkey. The following night there were more air strikes.

These developments upset the picture of the Syrian conflict that has prevailed for the last few months since the capture of Al-Bab, a small town north of Aleppo, when Turkey found itself hemmed in. This was because the Russians and Americans combined to block Turkish forces from moving eastward against either the Syrian Kurds or IS, which seems to have been a fairly brutal message for the Turks.

The American and Russian chiefs of general staff jointly met their Turkish counterpart in the Turkish city of Antalya to persuade him that Turkey should not advance any farther in the wake of the strikes. Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish intervention in Syria, was declared to have concluded successfully, although there was no talk of a withdrawal of the 4,000 Turkish troops in Syria.

Turkey’s decision to adopt a new style of intervention followed a deadlock over Syria in discussions between Turkey and the US when Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, visited Ankara on 30 March. The Turks hoped the Trump administration would agree to setting up “no-fly zones” in northern Syria, but discovered that Washington’s position remained essentially what it was under former US president Barack Obama.

Although their differences were publicly described as relating to IS, the real sticking point was US military unwillingness to break with its Syrian Kurdish allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have been its most effective partners against IS. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then began declaring that Turkey’s intervention in Syria was not over and there would be further operations.

Those “further operations” later began with simultaneous strikes at the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. The principal initial target was Sinjar, which seems to be turning into a new nerve centre for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces who have occupied it since it was recaptured from IS in 2015.

Turkey’s jets have been striking relentlessly at Mount Qandil, the original PKK headquarters in northern Iraq, since July 2015, and Turkey has repeatedly warned that it will never permit the PKK to hold Sinjar. US officials have backed up the Turkish position by insisting, evidently fruitlessly, on a PKK withdrawal, describing the group as a “foreign terrorist organisation”.

Across the border in Syria, Qarachok, the other main Turkish target, is an outpost of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, which is not regarded as a terrorist organisation but as a dependable ally of the US. The PYD said that the bombing of Qarachok had done serious damage and claimed 18 lives.

The important point in all this is that Turkey now believes that its planes can safely enter Syrian airspace to attack targets there.

However, last month’s hostilities were not confined to the skies. There were also cross-border exchanges of fire on several points along Turkey’s border with Syria, with Turkey claiming that it had come under mortar bomb attack in four places, injuring some of its soldiers.

That sounds like precisely the sort of clashes which precede the escalation of a conflict. If the air strikes are followed by ground operations, as Turkish media outlets are already hinting they will be, this will be a new stage in the conflicts both in Syria and Iraq, adversely affecting both the US and Russia.

Both Russia and the US have expressed their unhappiness at Turkey’s strikes, with Russia describing them as “unacceptable” and the Americans going even further. Mark Toner, the US State Department spokesperson, said that “these air strikes were not approved by the [anti-IS] coalition and led to the unfortunate loss of life of our partner forces.”

Turkey responded by insisting that it had given sufficient warning of one hour (the same time as the US gave to the Russians before its own missile strike on a Syrian regime base on 6 April). The pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah commented that “despite the change at the top, the Americans had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”

Erdogan clearly calculated that in this new intervention, he could avoid a direct conflict with either the Russians or the Americans in Syria. Turkish diplomacy will be tested to the utmost this month following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 3 May and with Trump in Washington towards the middle of the month. It has already been announced that the situation in Syria will be the main item on the Washington meeting’s agenda.

The critical point for Turkey’s strategy is how far the US and the Russians will allow it to go in reversing the growing independence of the Syrian Kurds. If the outside powers have some common understanding, as suggested by the Antalya meeting of the three countries’ commanders in March about how to contain Turkey’s inroads in Syria, then Ankara’s strategy will not work.

Ankara’s actions will probably depend on what the outside powers perceive as Turkey’s new strategic goals in Syria. Is Turkey simply trying to stop Kurdish military power growing, or would it like to see at least some Kurdish-held territory regained for its allies in the Sunni Arab opposition in Syria? Given the Kurds’ record as effective fighters, is the latter even a possible option for an invading army to achieve?

But Ankara will recall that at the Syrian town of Kobani, where the Syrian Kurds eventually won in a desperate siege by IS in 2014, they did so largely because of support from the air by the US. Having finally gained a chance to use its air force over Syria, Ankara is not going to give it up easily and will probably try and press its advantage further.

The writer is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

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