Turks in Syrian Quagmire


Fatima Habib

The lead Tank of the column rumble pass the stunned onlookers, German-made Leopard 2, with Turkish military insignia rolls across from the border of Turkey, on every inch of spin at the track, the earth jolts with the terror, accompanying them were Armoured Personal Carriers (APCs) approaching the town just across the border, no less terror could be witnessed when looking up in the skies where F-16 fighters are sweeping down bombing the targets in the town. The depression that has enshrouded the town since the launch of the offensive is a Gehenna from which the natives shall never be released. This marked the entry of another regional military power in agonizingly complex ever changing in already militarily saturated Syrian-Civil War.

Two weeks earlier, President Erdogan addressed the UN General Assembly in which he unveiled the map of proposed Safe Zone which was marked with red line. The Safe Zone is supposed to serve two-fold purposes of President Erdogan, who was striving for playing a major role in the final solution of Syria. The first and of the utmost importance was the rise of Kurdish Militia at the Turkish-Syrian Border and must be dealt with some social, political and economic issues as well. Furthermore, President Erdogan’s popularity was at his worst since he gained power. Erdogan has come a long way since he first took the office and curtailed military’s ability to influence politics. After which he tried his best to put some religious flavour in the secular Turkey. Finally, he struck with iron hand at the political and social elements with the potential of threating his rule and secured the position of strong man of Turkey. However, this status came at a cost. it was the only adjunct to attack Syria so that his popularity graph may trot up. He had already lost local elections and was depleted from major cities. Economic situation was hardly satisfactory. His move against the Kurds would divert the attention from all the domestic issues, for the Kurdish problem is considered very sensitive in Turkey. Turkey desiderated to change the demography of the Kurdish region in Syria by settling non Kurdish Arab refugees on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian Border. Turkey was ready for the Kurdish ethnic cleansing as some analysts pronounced them so. Turkey is asking for $10 billion to settle the Arab refugees at the Kurdish areas bordering Turkey. This amount may serve many folds for Turkey. It would not only upheave the Turkish economy, but shall also abet Turkey from taking control of its southern border.

It is the third Turkish military incursion into Syrian territory. Erdogan was pursuing this opportunity since last December, when President Trump suddenly announced his intentions to withdraw the ground troops; President Erdogan planned an offensive within the Syrian territory. Turkey had been in talks with the US to remove the PKK group and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), from northeastern Syria and establish a safe zone where Syrian refugees may be securely rehabilitated. During this period, the United States had to take concrete steps toward creating a safe zone, removing terrorists from the area and overseeing the destruction of fortifications, as well as conduct joint patrols with Turkey and set up checkpoints. In spite, US was unable, to some degree, complied with the timeline, joint air and land patrols and the destruction of some of the Kurds fortifications were dismantled by the SDF in Talab yad and Ras ul Ain. Yet Turks were unhappy because the agreement had not been fully implemented: US officials refused to distance them from the YPG.

Turkey thinks that the US had failed to meet their expectations. Therefore, they took unilateral steps in the area east of the Euphrates. Turkey was also expecting from European Union that they would support its plan. However, in a meeting with the interior ministers of Germany and France, the Turkish interior minister stressed that Turkey cannot admit any more refugees and EU’s failure to support the safe zone plan would result in an escalation of the migration crisis in Europe.

On 6th October, Trump ordered withdrawal of US troops from the part of Syrian-Turkish border after telephonic talk with Erdogan. This move was a surprise not only for SDF, Syrian government, Russians, US Congress but also for the decision makers of the State Department at Pentagon. This order serves as a green light for Turkey to move in.

On October 9, Turkey moved in and announced the launch of operation ‘Peace Spring’ with the aim of capturing the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, thus stipulates the withdrawal of YPG from nearly all remaining areas of the border up to a depth of 32 km.

Kurds are scattered in the region. There is no exact figure about the Kurdish population as none of the countries that house Kurdish people have done an ethnic census. Estimates vary between $20 to 40 million. The most credible estimates number 15 million in Turkey and 7-8 million in Iran. In Iraq, semi-autonomous the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) evaluates the number of inhabitants to 5.3 million. There would be 1-2 million Kurds in Syria. In northeastern Syria Kurds were concentrated into two pockets. Kurds came to prominence after ISIS began to expand its territory in Kurdish populated area. There was no regional force on ground which can challenge ISIS. Kurds were never the part of Syrian Civil War up until, the ISIS began proliferating its control over Kurdish populated area. Battle of Kobne proved to be a turning point when Kurds pushed ISIS backed with the help of US led air operations. Thus, the west found a parallel for ISIS in the shape of YPG (Kurdish Militia) despite Turkish frantic protest. Then onwards coordination and cooperation between US and YGP began to improve in Syria as well as in Iraq. Gradually the Kurdish Militia was name as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to try to make it acceptable for Turkey. With almost 2000 US troops on ground and immense air power coupled with growingly skilled Kurdish forces ISIS was deprived of its land holding in Syria and victory was declared in Syria.

President Trump ordered of withdrawal of US troops from Syria-Turkish border not only seen as a go-ahead for turkey to move in, it created an opportunity for President Putin to register himself as the main power broker in the region. When US allies in the region the Saudi’s and Israelis were absorbing the shock of Trump move Putin was already in the midst of dialogue with Turkey and the SDF. SDF reached an agreement with Assad brooked by Russian according to which Syrian Arab Army moved into previously SDF held areas for the first time since 2012. Putin signed a separate agreement with Erdogan in Sochi. According to this agreement the area between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, 120 km in length and 32 km wide, was declared as a safe zone as desired by Erdogan. Russia manages to persuade SDF to clear the area; the rest of the border was supposed to be patrolled by Turkish and Russian military. As a result of all this the greatest winner is President Assad along with Russia to whom many of the regional powers are looking up to as the most reliable superpower. Moreover, neither of the main players as in the war is pleased as the Kurds grew stronger and their influence increased. Especially Iran, against which YPG was an instrument in the hands of Israel and the US. Assad regime is never willing to accept the Kurdish authority to the extent where Kurds announced autonomous or semi-autonomous Kurd rule. Russians see Kurds as another complicated problem which they have to solve for Assad as they are main backers of the regime. 

President Erdogan is increasingly finding himself walking on a delicate path. Turkey is very important NATO member whose 60% of military hardware is of US and Western Europe. In last few years Erdogan has developed friendly relations with Putin’s Russia, culminating in procurement of S-400 air defense systems and negotiations are underway for the transfer of technology of S-400 and purchase of SU-35 fighter jets. It’s difficult to imagine how Turkey will manage to balance between NATO and Russia.

Has this Turkish aggression served anyone? For how long will Turkey sustain its position of occupation of Syrian territory? Would this safe zone serve the foreign policy of Turkey? It might appear a win-win situation for Turkey, but history reiterates differently for the fore mentioned questions. It might look pleasing for Turkish nation but the tensile strength may not act as strong as it appears as it may break soon looking at the economic condition of Turkey. It has never served internationally; the Bosnian Safe Zone, Rwanda Safe zones, massacre of Houthis, Sri Lankan bombardment of Tamils. The world is witness to it: that these aggressions have never worked as it is never being brutal.