Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan and Idlib

Rocked by the Kurdish referendum on secession in Iraq, Ankara is wading once again knee-deep into the Syrian quagmire, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid


اقرأ باللغة العربية

According to officials in Ankara and their “mainstream” media, the Syrian city of Idlib and surrounding district is the Turkish “backyard”. That term serves a lot of purposes. One is to justify another incursion, just in case the city falls into the clutches of the Islamic State group (IS). This could have repercussions for the Anatolian interior, but what has observers perplexed is that the preliminary phases of the operation bring to mind, again, the claims of a “suspicious” relationship between Turkish authorities and the “hardline” Islamist trends described everywhere else in the world as terrorist. Ankara, of course, swore up and down that such a relationship did not exist. For many years during its involvement in the Syrian quagmire it exerted heroic efforts to prove this by pointing its finger in other directions and denouncing those “malicious” and “tendentious” aspersions that were the fabrications of a conspiracy woven abroad with the aid of “agents” from within.

But then came that unanticipated surprise from the direction of the security wall constructed along the whole of the border with Syria at the cost of millions. The purpose, ostensibly, was to keep out Islamist extremists and others with nefarious agendas. Yet, today, we find that portions of the costly structure being dismantled, precisely in order to facilitate — once again — the cross-border toing-and-froing of takfiri elements. Then, as though to eliminate any last shadow of a doubt regarding the close bond between Ankara and the “former” Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, Erdogan’s intelligence agencies are meeting and negotiating with the latter with regard to how to divvy up the Idlib pie.

The timing of the latest military operation announced by the Turkish president at the outset of the recent ruling party’s “consultative and evaluative” conference was also the source of numerous comments and speculations. Why now? Is it a mere coincidence that it came in the immediate aftermath of that earthquake that had as its epicentre the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September? The powers-that-be in Ankara are still deeply shaken by that event with its ominous implications for the demographically complicated region in south and southeast Anatolia. After the sabre rattling that failed to put a stop to that event, Ankara needed to perform some fast footwork. This entailed fuelling ultranationalist passions and a display of muscle to let all and sundry know that the heir to the Ottoman empire will stand firm against any attempt to fragment and divide its territory.

With the launch of “Euphrates Shield 2”, which is being fought by the (fractured and divided) Free Syrian Army (FSA) with ground support from the Turkish army and air support from Russian fighters, all Turkish satellite TV channels without exception shifted their cameras in that direction. One might have thought they were all in tacit agreement to divert attention from the resounding defeat of the Turkish national football team, in front of a packed stadium on home ground, and its consequent failure to qualify for the World Cup. News programmes and talk shows now feature a long parade of experts, opinion pundits and officials, all keen to analyse, assess and voice their views, or more precisely the dominant view. Naturally, the majority of them heaped unreserved praise on the decision of the political leadership and fervently evoked Turkic chauvinist themes and other pieties, aware of how this will curry favour with the occupant of the “White Palace” who never misses an opportunity to raise the Muslim Brotherhood’s four-finger salute while simultaneously proclaiming ultranationalist cries.

In the background, in all the soundtracks, we hear patriotic anthems and militaristic chants, whether to boost the morale of the soldiers waiting to invade Syria or to promote a “holy march towards Kirkuk with its Turkmen population” who “we should not leave prey to Masoud Barzani and his clique!”

Meanwhile, on the more subdued and bleaker shores of Turkish public opinion, where one hears voices, now reduced to whispers, murmuring the antitheses of the belligerent diatribes of the Erdogan propaganda machine, there are mounting suspicions that the AKP government is ready to ally with the devil himself if that’s what it takes to recuperate its steadily eroding popularity. They fear impending disaster that will come at a heavy cost to Turkey and the Turkish people and warn of a trap, located in Idlib, laid by parties that the decision-maker in Ankara currently thinks of as friends, namely Russia and Iran.

To add intrigue to the mystery surrounding the Turkish autocrat’s decree to “restore security in Idlib”, various leaks and rumours, said to originate outside of Anatolia, have found their way into social networking sites here and suggest that a deal was struck between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the latter’s visit to Ankara on 28 September. The substance is that Ankara needed to act realistically and pragmatically in accordance with developments on the ground in Syria, which are now inclined in favour of the regime in Damascus. Accordingly, if Ankara relinquishes its demand that Al-Assad has to go, Moscow will allow Turkey to regain some of its influence in Idlib.

During his visit to Tehran at the beginning of this month, Erdogan found an open-armed welcome. The mullahs were delighted to receive and encourage him as long as that army, which is riddled with infighting and rifts and that calls itself “free”, fulfils its vow to dismantle itself, as the winner will be their ally Bashar Al-Assad, of course. As for Washington, whose relations with Turkey are getting rockier by the day, it has maintained an enigmatic silence as it watches the state of play around Idlib while continuing to arm and support the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, foremost on Erdogan’s long list of most reviled enemies.

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