2018-11-20

When Ankara restores its sovereignty over Turkish enclave in Syria


Nothing is calm on the Turkish border. Again. This time it is about the escalation of situation on the line of contact with the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. At the end of October, Turkish border guards for the first time in several months of relative calm bombarded the  Kurdish positions in the area of ​​Zor Maghar, located on the banks of the Euphrates River. The Turkish leadership now talks about preparations for the next operation in Syria with the aim to clean up the whole Turkish border from terrorist groups.

It is not by chance that Ankara emphasizes that this is precisely a forced military cross-border operation against terrorists. Turkish diplomats before the start of Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January 2018 referred to Article 51 of the UN Charter, according to which Turkey had the right to self-defense in the face of threats to its national security. Ankara’s diplomatic front has been strengthened by the high level of readiness of the armed forces, which have been conducting anti-terrorist operations in northern Iraq for over a year  now.

Turkish authorities are forced to take into account not only the foreign policy atmosphere before the start of a possible operation, however. The ruling party would not risk its political image, not having behind the tangible support of Turkish society. It seems that the Turkish authorities may raise the issue of transfer of the tomb of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of Osman the First, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, to its original place, the east bank of the Euphrates.

In February 2015, the tomb under the protection of sizeable Turkish military convoy of 39 tanks and 57 armored vehicles was moved  closer to Turkish border. Ankara believed that approaching ISIS militants were about to capture the memorial complex, and together with it a Turkish garrison, which would be a catastrophic blow to the image of the government.

Now, when Turkey is looking for a convincing argument for a limited invasion, the idea of ​​returning the tomb of Shah represents an ideal opportunity. Moreover, the territory of the complex is considered the sovereign lands of the Turkish Republic, according to a bilateral agreement with Syria.

With the complication of the dialogue between Ankara and Washington on the evacuation of Syrian Kurds from the city of Menbij, Turkish officials hinted that the operation to transfer the tomb, and with it the creation of a protection zone around, essentially an enclave of Turkish territory inside Syria, was not a whim, but a necessity. The link between the news of the intention to return the wandering Shah to the ancestral territory with Turkey’s desire to put pressure on Menbijd is obvious: the territory of the tomb is located a few meters from the main M4 highway connecting Menbij with the so-called Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, the political project of the Party of the Union, which Ankara accuses relations with the Turkish terrorist Working Party of Kurdistan.

The highest circles of Turkey understand the consequences of inaction regarding the long-term US plans in northern Syria. Ankara realizes that its American partners are seeking to restrain Syrian-Kurdish nationalism in the framework of the processes taking place in Syria. Hence the support of the American leadership of the negotiations of the Syrian Kurds and the official Damascus on the parameters of future autonomy in the north of the country.

For Turkey, at least for today, this means implementation of a political project for which the Kurdistan Workers' Party separatists have been fighting for with the central government of Turkey for more than 30 years. On the scale of the region, this means the appearance of the next Kurdish autonomy on the map of the Middle East, and with it the strengthening of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey itself, where at least 15 million representatives of this people live.

In addition, Ankara is worried about the US attention shifting from the confrontation of the consolidation of the central government in Syria, which Turkey also opposes, towards deterring Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria. High-ranking officials in Ankara emphasize two factors that could potentially threaten Turkey’s national security.

First, the US confrontation with Iran through local proxy forces can escalate into open armed clashes, which can destabilize the entire section of the Turkish border as far as Iraq. In the conditions of chaos and instability, the anti-Turkish forces can get the opportunity to conduct sabotage operations already in the territory of Turkey itself.

Secondly, the American policy of active containment of Iran in the region implies a more active inclusion in possible actions against Tehran by the Arab regimes, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Under the conditions of the Middle East Cold War between the Qatar-Turkey-Muslim Brotherhood against axis of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, emergence of unfriendly forces on the Turkish border will make the region more unpredictable and may further destabilize the eastern provinces Turkey as well.

It’s hard to say when Turkish tanks cross the Syrian border this time. It is obvious that active hostilities can lead to unforeseen incidents with the American contingent stationed in northern Syria, located in several dozen strongholds along the entire border.

It is obvious that for the time being, Turkey is trying, despite friction with its NATO allies, to solve the problem of the emergence of a “garrison state” under the leadership of the PKK through diplomatic channels. Moreover, it is necessary to take into account that Ankara does not want complications with the United States in Syria, being at a disadvantage in the negotiations around Idlib. Any step against US interests in Syria could deprive Turkey of a favorable bargaining position with Russia.

Considering this, we should expect that the priority for Turkey will not be military pressure on the United States - Ankara will obviously try to transform the territory of northern Syria from the PKK project to a more neutral federal political entity, where, besides the Kurds themselves, Syrian Turkmens and the Arabs.

The operation to transfer the tomb of Suleiman Shah will remain on the agenda in Turkey for some time. The issue of restoring Turkish sovereignty over the enclave will be discussed in the context of protecting the local Turkmens population. There are already news about ongoing training of militants from among the Syrian Turkmens to assist the Turkish army in the event of the start of such an operation.

The rhetoric around this can play a positive role in the internal political situation: in March 2019 in Turkey they plan to hold local elections. Today the party of Erdogan is in a forced alliance with Turkish nationalists. But conduct it so symbolic for the nationalist electorate operation on the eve of the elections - the victory of the ruling party is assured.

The peculiarities of Turkish diplomacy and Turkey’s perception of threats at its own borders should lead Russia to involve Ankara in significant Syrian initiatives, rather than to dismiss. Any attempts to isolate Turkey entail an intensification of militaristic thinking in Ankara. And with the growth of nationalist sentiment, the position of diplomats will certainly be inferior to the military. It is worth emphasizing that at the moment Turkey in most cases focuses on the diplomatic solution of issues in relations with partner countries, which, however, should not be interpreted as weakness.

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