Turkey’s Syrian problem turning into a riddle

Current act deals with offensive on al-Bab, which is the most intense phase of Operation Euphrates Shield.

2017/02/19 Issue: 94 Page: 12

The Arab Weekly
Yavuz Baydar

Be sure that Shake­speare would die — once more — to watch all of this: The Syrian theatre deserves to be named the Globe — a grand stage on which a major drama takes place, with all the actors in uniform and combat outfits, swept up by crafty twists and turns.

The drama’s finale is unknown but what we see is an actor already hit by misfortune as a result of his illusions and flawed decisions. On the top of the list is Turkey, vulnerable to sudden changes in the plot.

Syria, Iran and Russia seem determined and focused on their own goals; Jordan and Lebanon have chosen deliberate, defensive low profiles. Turkey’s choreogra­phy has been distorted by a complex duality that marked its rulers.

As its insisted regime-changer role in Syria collapsed, Ankara’s wobbly course was a synthesis between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sympathy for jihadist elements in the Syrian opposition and his military’s entrenched anti-Kurdish stand. This blend defines the Turkish pattern and has only brought misfortune and failure.

The current act deals with the offensive on al-Bab, which is the most intense phase of Operation Euphrates Shield. The operation began in August 2016. Since early February, Turkish armed forces have been pushing through the northern and western side of the town. About 1,500 soldiers along with 2,000 combatants from the Free Syrian Army have been involved. The number of Turkish casualties in the past six months top 70, US sources said. The Turks have also lost at least nine Leopard tanks in the offensive.

Given the fierce, deadly resistance of 800 jihadists nested in the centre of the town, it is a given that the number of losses will continue to rise.

Even through the dense fog of censorship in Turkish media, it is easy to decode the unease spreading slowly across Erdogan’s government. Deaths echo badly at home. The war is a costly business for a not-so-well-equipped army, whose top echelons were chopped off in a severe purge after the coup attempt last July. Add to that Russia’s assertion as the power broker and Trump’s enigmatic stand vis-à-vis Damascus.

This all helps explain why Numan Kurtulmus, the spokes­man for the Erdogan government, talked about al-Bab offensive as the “final act where the Turkish forces would stop”, only to find himself the next day contradicted by Erdogan, who said that Manbij and Raqqa were next. Erdogan also repeated his idea about a 4,000-sq.-km safe zone between the Turkish border and al-Bab for, as he underlined, “resettling our Turkmen and Arab brothers”.

This is where the plot thickens to almost unbearable intensity. What is the Turkish endgame? Is there any? Is it a strategic pattern or a gamble in despair at stake?

Given the mixed signals from Ankara, it is likely the latter. Realising how stuck his govern­ment has become between two leaders, with the positions of Iran, Israel and Jordan leaving no room for further manoeuvre, Erdogan must decide how to play the final act. There are two possibilities: Choose a side between Russian President Vladimir Putin or US President Donald Trump or attempt a fait accompli with Raqqa as a focal point.

Putin and Trump seem to be on the same page seeking to annihi­late all jihadist elements from the Syrian theatre. They eye, sepa­rately, Raqqa, where as many as 10,000 ISIS combatants remain who could possibly use more than 200,000 inhabitants as human shields. Both are not sure how and where Turks fit into a force that will attack the town. To Erdogan’s horror, they see Syrian Kurdish forces as inevitable, efficient partners.

Trump has not at all warmed up to the idea of a safe zone in northern Syria as he does not want a confrontation with Russian or Syrian regime forces. Neither does Putin favour such an idea, because he does not trust Ankara and sees a Turkish presence as only temporary until Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops gain strong enough control against the Sunni opposition in general.

Russia’s offer of some form of self-rule to the Kurds is part of Putin’s grand plan. This leaves Trump, who seems to favour a safe zone along Jordan’s border and either arming the Kurdish forces for a Raqqa offensive or hard bargaining further with Erdogan, who reportedly offered Turkish armed forces to take the lead for it, without any Kurdish inclusion.

For Erdogan, continued political survival at home would be, no matter what, to prevent Kurdish self-rule taking root in Syria. The idea, which neither Putin nor Assad would likely accept, may include the Turkish hidden agenda that, if and when Raqqa is taken by such a force, the Turkish Army would attempt to set up a base there, both to prevent Kurdish self-rule and, as a bargaining chip, to regain a role to define the region’s future.

If none of this happens, could Erdogan’s forces go it alone through the north-eastern side of the border towards Raqqa as a pre-emptive move? Possible but very difficult. The distance is about 300km and would demand enormous logistical back-up and troop involvement — and likely would result in huge losses.

This all explains how badly stuck Turkey is, an actor who changes his lines in every act, leaving the audiences bewildered

Not all the other actors feel this way. They not only act, they also direct the play.

Yavuz Baydar is a journalist based in Istanbul. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) and a news analyst, he won the European Press Prize in 2014. He has been reporting on Turkey and journalism issues since 1980.

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