Will Syria Become Turkey’s Vietnam?
The intractable Syrian conflict might see two more parties, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, getting directly involved in the coming days. On Saturday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Mevlut Cavusoglu, talked of the possibility of both countries deploying ground forces in Syria to fight against ISIS. Close on the heels of this announcement, came the news that Turkey shelled various Kurdish positions in northern Syria. This news, coupled with the timing of the previous announcement, raises some serious questions about Turkey’s intentions, as Syrian forces have started to recapture many of the regime’s lost territories in Aleppo province, and militants are reportedly in retreat. Turkey may think that such a move might achieve its immediate geopolitical aims; however, it can actually backfire and needs to be thoroughly analyzed.
The first problem lies in Turkey’s inability to decide who its real enemy is. Are they Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurds led by PYD or are they militant Islamic groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham? Last year, after agreeing to provide its Incirlik air base for US led operations against ISIS, Turkey started shelling both ISIS and PKK positions, but soon shifted its attention solely on the PKK. Even now, just after announcing its intention to put ground troops in Syria to fight against ISIS, the first action it undertook was the shelling of Kurdish positions in northern Syria. Thus, it is yet not clear whom Turkey really wants to fight – PKK and PYD or ISIS.
On one hand, it probably wants to confront ISIS which was allegedly responsible for the recent attack in Istanbul. And, unlike the bombings in Diyarbakir and Suruc last year which were mainly targeted at Kurds, the one in Istanbul attacked a tourist hub and killed many German nationals.
It further eroded Turkey’s image as a tourist destination, which had been spiraling downwards since last year. To further compound the problem, even if Turkey is really serious about ISIS, its rivals like Russia and PYD are not very likely to believe it.
In this scenario, the best option is for Turkey to sit it out, and allow others to take care of ISIS. It will not only take care of Turkey’s primary objective (defeating ISIS if it is) but also ensure that no further serious flare ups occur in the simmering Syrian cauldron.
On the other hand what appears to be a more likely explanation, is that it wants to stop the Syrian Kurds from establishing a contiguous zone just south of Turkey. Turkey and Syria share a 822 km border and Syrian Kurds intend to capture a 90 km stretch of territory along the border from Jarablus to Azaz. This will link the Kurdish cantons of Kobane and Afrin and complete a contiguous autonomous Kurdish territory on Turkey’s southern border. It will also cut the supply lines which are being used to supply rebels supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia against Assad’s regime. President Erdogan has repeatedly warned that any Kurdish attempts to move west of the Euphrates river will amount to crossing a red line as he believes that PYD is closely aligned with PKK. Hence, in this scenario, it is very likely that Turkey will get involved to safeguard its interests, and open a Pandora’s Box it might regret later.
The first problem Turkey will face will be the legitimacy of its operation which the UN is not likely to authorize. Also, Syrian Kurds led by PYD enjoy the support of both the USA and Russia. Even though Turkey won a battle by ensuring that the PYD delegation was not invited to the Geneva III talks, which fell through, it lost the war when the US State Department’s spokesman John Kirby reiterated USA’s support for PYD by calling them “partners” in the fight against ISIS. Such a statement on USA’s part appears logical as well for YPG (PYD’s militia) has emerged as one of the best fighting forces against ISIS. Russia has also repeatedly stated that there can be no solution to Syria without the participation of PYD. With PYD enjoying such wide support, Turkey and President Erdogan, will find it tough to move against them without inviting international criticism.
Such a move will also cost Turkey on the battlefield and lead to a large number of casualties. Turkey is already involved in a protracted battle against PKK, and if it decides to go ahead with its Syrian plan, the PKK will further step-up its counter assaults on the Turkish army. Also, the YPG has emerged as a very efficient force after years of fighting against ISIS and other factions, and will make the advance of Turkish and Saudi troops very difficult. But the biggest challenge, undoubtedly, will come from Turkey’s Ottoman era rival-Russia.
Turkey shot itself in the foot when it gunned down a Russian Su-24 on 24th November last year for violating its airspace. The incident sparked off tensions between both sides which have not cooled down since. In fact, Turkey again accused Russia of violating its airspace on 30th January and ingeniously termed it as a “violation of NATO airspace.” However, NATO is a defensive alliance, and in case of an unauthorized invasion is unlikely to come to Turkey’s rescue should tensions with Russia escalate further. Moreover, Russia is waiting for Turkey to make such a mistake so it can avenge the downing of its aircraft. The advance of any ground troops requires air support, and Russia has imposed a de-facto no-fly zone in northern Syria. Any attempts to challenge it might prove costly for Turkey as Russia has now also deployed Su-34s which are technically superior to both Turkish F-16s and Russian Su-24s, one of which was gunned down by Turkey.
Keeping in mind all these factors, Turkey would be best advised to forget its narrow geopolitical aims for some time and focus on a constructive resolution of the Syrian conflict. President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu should remember that such a move might initially help them shore up some nationalist support for their political aims but in the long run, it will only spell doom. As the number of casualties will rise, it will not consolidate but rather significantly weaken Mr. Erdogan’s position. It might, in fact, also antagonize the army which is famous (or infamous) for overthrowing regimes in Turkey. Also, it is easier to enter complex conflicts like these but difficult to get out as experienced by the Americans and Soviets in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. The old Chinese proverb- It is easier to ride a tiger than dismount- probably explains it best.