Turkey’s influence grows but Damascus lies in the long grass

The Assad regime is weak today but will continue to lie in wait to catch Turkey off guard.

2017/04/30 Issue: 104 Page: 7

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

With Ankara announcing plans to rebuild 66 mosques and send 1,000 aid trucks into northern Syria, Turkey looks to be settling in for the long haul.

Since a ground operation to clear the Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish militias from its border regions began last August, Turkey has invested time, manpower — losing more than 30 soldiers — and mil­lions of dollars in military ord­nance to gain a foothold in 2,000 sq. kilometres, an area larger than metropolitan London.

Turkey can claim a degree of success. ISIS rocket attacks that terrorised residents of the border town of Kilis have ceased. Terror­ist attacks in Turkey have declined since the beginning of the year. The advance of Syrian separatist Kurds along Turkey’s border has been checked.

Turkey announced in March that it would end its military adventure in Syria. The reality, however, may be that Ankara’s plans for control of a large section of its neigh­bouring country, either by proxy through pro-Ankara rebel groups or directly, might just be begin­ning. It has banned major foreign agencies providing aid to displaced Syrians from operating in Turkey and forced others to re-register. Its state development organisation, AFAD, has since taken over much of the distribution of resources across the north.

None of this, however, will be lost on the Syrian government in Damascus. Despite a series of recent affronts, Damascus con­tinues to take every effort not to engage or antagonise Turkey. Little was made of the fact that twice in February Damascus forces and Turkey-backed rebels clashed in al- Bab, north of Aleppo, killing more than 20 Syrian troops. Almost nothing was made of Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham’s claimed shooting down of a Syrian war­plane on March 4.

Some may see the lack of a response from Damascus as a sign of weakness considering it publicly recognises the rebels as “terror­ist groups that belong to Turkey.” However, if recent history is any guide, “weakness” for the Syrian regime is a relative concept.

Months or years down the road Damascus is likely to work every angle to force any Turkish influ­ence out of northern Syria. Take the case of Lebanon. There, Damas­cus dominated the political and se­curity fields for decades before the assassination of Rafik Hariri saw a groundswell in support for the end of Syrian influence in 2005.

Damascus openly withdrew its armed forces but not its web of intelligence contacts and influen­tial and influenced officials. Since then, it has shown that it wields significant influence in Lebanon. When the country came close to civil war during clashes between Sunni and Alawite militias in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen districts in 2008 and later, during the Syria conflict, Da­mascus was instrumental in both fuelling and ultimately keeping a lid on the violence.

Previously when Hafez Assad, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s fa­ther, was Syria’s president, Turkey almost went to war with Syria in 1998 over its protection and host­ing of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. Syria kicked Ocalan out but did not hand him over to Turkey; Damas­cus considered Ocalan as leverage to be used later against Turkey.

The Assad regime has endured some of the canniest statesmen and leaders the West has thrown at the Middle East for the past half century. It has outlasted Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and, on its own turf, the worst conflict the world has seen for decades.

Syria, a country that Damascus claims to represent, lies in ruins and the regime is isolated from the international community. Although Turkey may be in the ascendancy in northern Syria, Da­mascus knows Ankara’s weakness centres on the growing strength and legitimacy of a Kurdish state­let in northern Syria. By support­ing Kurdish separatists in northern Syria today, Damascus is building a set of new conditions it will use to extract what it wants from Ankara years from now.

The Assad regime is weak today but will continue to lie in wait to catch Turkey off guard, be it next month, next year or further down the road.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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