Is Turkey about to “go it alone” in Syria?

Turkish domestic security is to a great extent defined by the political situation in Syria and Iraq. Ankara has been trying to prevent further destabilization in its eastern provinces. Meanwhile, support and security guarantees of its western allies are needed as never before. Lack of unity in positions with the USA over threat perceptions may force Turkey to act on its own. A limited military operation on the Syrian border can’t be ruled out.

The ongoing military operations against the terrorist organization Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) in the East of Turkey doesn’t show any signs of abating.  A central government sends a clear sign: Ankara is determined to a fight. A curfew has been enforced in a number of cities, while Turkish Special Forces were deployed in a larger city of Cizre, near the Syrian border, to conduct a clearance operation against PKK’s urban guerilla. Since the beginning of the large scale military anti-terror operation on 15 December 544 terrorists were killed, according to the Turkish General Staff report.

Some observers warn that current wave of violence is so far the bloodiest in the decade long conflict between the Turkish state and PKK. At the same time Turkish government acknowledges that the struggle against Kurdish terrorists has long acquired a regional dimension making it necessary not only to follow the events in Iraq and Syria but also to act preventively for the sake of own security.

With the outbreak of the civil war in Syria actions of the Syrian Kurds (comprising 6-15% of population in Syria) under political leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) became another element of standoff between Ankara and PKK. According to their own statements, PYD is ideologically close to PKK, nevertheless operationally acts independently within Rojava region (Kurdish for Western Kurdistan, i.e. Northern Syria). On the other hand, PYD is regarded by Ankara as a Syrian affiliate of PKK, thereby it constitutes no less greater threat to Turkey as PKK itself.

The very development on the ground in the last 2 years in Syria among other factors compelled Turkey to review her plans to push through peace initiative with the PKK. Remaining neutral in violent confrontation between the Syrian government and various opposition groups Syrian Kurds managed to obtain enough military power to gain influence along the Turkish border and to protect territory of Rojava. Kurds made it possible to build autonomy within Syrian state and therefore changed the balance in Turkey itself by improving negotiation positions of the PKK.

By December 2015 PYD forces managed to shut down a major part of 822 km. border with Turkey rendering it hard for Ankara to support logistically pro-Turkish forces inside Syria. Single available border strip between Azaz and Jarablus is so far controlled by ISIS and smaller conflicting factions. This very sector is used by Turkish intermediaries to provide vital support for friendly groups around Aleppo. No wonder why Ankara declared it would resolutely fight any attempts by PYD to close existing gap between Azaz and Jarablus and unite Kurdish cantons into one continuous territory. With all its territories united Rojava government under PYD would effectively derail all Syrian policy of Ankara.

Syrian Kurds find ways to infiltrate into the disputed area, all Turkish threats notwithstanding. For example, in October 2015 PYD announced the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of the local Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian groups. PYD military forces, commonly known under the abbreviation of YPG, constitute the bulk of the SDF with 30,000 fighters in total of 40,000. With international support behind, SDF forces in December 2015 successfully crossed the Euphrates and took Abu Qilqil from ISIS. In that way PYD in fact crossed Ankara’s “red line”, i.e. its demand not to enter Aziz-Jarablus area under the threat of retaliation.

Recent military progress of the Syrian army in Latakia created another cause for concern in Turkey. According to government sources, regime forces successfully restored control of the whole Latakia province, demonstrating increased operational potential of the Syrian army coupled with continuing Russian air support. Experts predict that Damascus intends to capture Aleppo, a largest city in the northern Syria that turned into the center of the armed opposition.

Russian participation in the civil war on the side of Assad and its direct confrontation with Ankara’s allies on the ground is another increasingly alarming factor for the current Turkish government. Russian involvement affects Turkish threat perception also through possible cooperation between PYD and Moscow. Ankara understandably seemed to be displeased by the news of Russian plans to open another military airbase in PYD-controlled city of Qamishli near Turkish border.

While losing its positions in Syria Ankara desperately seeks support of its western partners. Recent visit of the US Vice President Joe Biden on 23 January had to demonstrate not only unity of positions between two major regional players, but also to show solidarity with Turkey over its fight against IS and PKK. In his statement released after the meeting with US VP Biden Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu underlined that both countries are determined to continue fighting IS in Syria. Meanwhile, Vice President confirmed that PKK is seen by the US government as a terrorist organization. Despite seeming unanimity Ankara was discontented with Washington’s stance on principal issues.

First of all, upon his arrival Biden met with representatives of media and civil organizations critical of the current Turkish government. Moreover during his conversation with the Prime Minister Biden underlined importance of freedom of speech. The remark implicitly referred to the recent crackdown of Ankara against intellectuals who spoke out in an open petition against terrorism and security forces’ harsh conduct against thereof. Several people who signed the document were either arrested or fired from universities. Government officials publicly denounced them as traitors.

Secondly, Turkey wasn’t satisfied with how Biden condemned PKK’s violence. While acknowledging that PKK is indeed a terrorist organization US official didn’t utter a word about PYD’s role in ongoing violence. Ankara has been trying for months to persuade its American partners to treat PYD as PKK’s affiliate in Syria. According to Turkish intelligence sources, there is a close cooperation between the two groups mainly through mobilization efforts, training and transfer of fighters and material support. Ankara is particularly anxious by the expanding cooperation between the USA and Syrian Kurds in the framework of fight against the ISIS. Arms provided to the SDF by Washington may end up in PKK’s hands.

There is also a diplomatic coordination between the USA and PYD. On 31 January, i.e. in the midst of the crucial Geneva negotiations between Damascus and armed opposition, US President Barack Obama's special envoy to an international coalition fighting ISIL in Syria and Iraq Brett McGurk met with the FDS’ (read PYD’) representatives for further coordination on anti-IS efforts. Experts point out, however, that true intention behind the visit was an attempt to reassure the Kurds of US support after they were excluded from the Geneva initiatives following Turkish protests.

Lack of any tangible commitment in Vice President’s statements caused for distress in the Turkish administration. In several speeches of both President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu made after Biden’s departure one can find clear signs that Ankara is resolved to go it alone in Syria. For example, Davutoglu, who recently in his interview to the Guardian claimed that situation in Syria has turned into a domestic issue of Turkey, stated Turkish Armed Forces are ready to conduct military strikes against PYD’s positions in Syria just as they do in Northern Iraq.

Turkish President Erdogan made statements in the same spirit as well. In one of his public speeches he complained that “states Turks call allies persistently refuse to see a true face of terrorism”. Right after his meeting with VP Biden Erdogan opaquely criticized inconsistent position of US on PYD-PKK relations, implying that “countries, that once abandoned Turkey in its fight against terrorism, will eventually find themselves in similar situation”.

Absence of any feasible opportunity to influence its partners over PYD forces Turkey to make hasty decisions. Prior to the beginning of the Geneva meeting, the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned on 25 January that Turkey would boycott the negotiations if PYD are invited.

Ankara’s discontent with Washington’s position on several crucial questions is reinforced by Turkish pessimism regarding the United States’ ability to further conduct active policy in observable future. Such resentment was expressed well by a journalist of pro-government propaganda newspaper Daily Sabah: “What is sad is that the U.S. is still not displaying proper leadership in world affairs, led by the Syrian issue, and thus is allowing Russia and Iran a free hand in the region. It seems this unfortunate situation will continue until the U.S. presidential election produces a new and strong president who will face international challenges in an appropriate manner”.

Ankara’s position is quite intelligible. As such this discontent is based on its unpreparedness to assume growing responsibility for security on its own borders while having USA gradually reduce activity within the framework of a new concept of “strategic patience”. The cornerstone idea of this concept is to decrease the extent of the US involvement in the Middle East meanwhile stimulate regional partners into conducting more responsible policies.

The new concept, on the other hand, can be interpreted by the US tradition allies in the region as another sign of the US decline and its reluctance to bear existing security guarantees. As Saudi Arabian case shows us, countries, that have been relying on US in questions of own security, are compelled to undertake unilateral steps without waiting for Washington to come out with a clear position on the ever growing number of regional issues.

By the same token Turkey also has reasons to ponder over more involvement into the Syrian conflict. PYD’s activity on the Turkish border, their attempts to create autonomy challenge Ankara’s domestic security. Turkish officials so far haven’t received positive signals from Washington regarding American commitment to decrease threat to the Turkish interests. In such circumstances a possibility that Turkey will eventually decide to act on its own, including small scale cross-border military operation, is as high as never before.

1 comment:

  1. You are so spot on! Turkey would have us believe that the Azaz-Jarbulus area is the Fulda Gap of the Mid-East. Their challenge is to craft a confrontation, not where they go ino Syria, but where the PYD goes into Turkey. They can more easily invoke clasuses the, to bring NATO to the dance.