What are the Wider Implications of Turkey’s Syria Adventure?
The recent rapprochement and normalising of relations between Ankara and Moscow was supposed to put to bed the difficulties and strains in the relationship after the November 2015 downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M jet by a Turkish F-16. The recently failed coup attempt, the rise in ISIS attacks on Turkish soil, the impact of Syrian refugees and the ongoing difficulties with the Kurds, both PKK and YPG in Syria, had necessitated a recalibration in Ankara. The fostering of new strategic relationships had become a necessity.
The apology and placing of blame on the now Gulen linked F-16 pilot was supposed to benefit both Russia and Turkey, allowing them to move forward. For Putin it was one less distraction and difficulty, better securing his navy’s position and its ability to enter and exit the Black Sea via the Bosporus. Turkey would now benefit from closer relations, having shifted somewhat from the US and NATO, especially after their lukewarm support during the coup (and widespread belief that the US at least had foreknowledge of the coup).
Erdogan’s St Petersburg visit would also bring news of the revival of the previously scrapped Turkish Stream project, the construction of a direct gas pipeline from Russia’s Black Sea region via the Black Sea to Turkey before entering Greece. Both sides would benefit financially and guarantee the strategic development of economic and energy security. It will allow Erdogan to continue with his goal of turning Turkey into a regional trade and energy hub; Putin will be able to bypass the Soyuz and Bratstvo pipelines that run through Ukraine. Russia will also commence with the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which Turkey sees as a key part of its energy strategy, while the recommencement of bilateral trade relations, especially goods and tourism into Turkey, will be a bonus to both economies as they continue to stumble to varying degrees.
Moreover, the increase in the ultra-nationalist, anti-western presence under the AKP umbrella and centres of power, particularly in the military, taking the spaces left behind by the purges of Gulenists, is likely to lead to an increase in pro-Russian sentiment, while the anti-Kurd stance continues. A greater degree of separation from Washington was, and still is, on the cards.
Erdogan’s post-coup speeches, where he declared that Turkey will pursue its own objectives, not only signals an ever-independent foreign policy but a strategy built on pragmatism. Such an approach is, at its core, merely a recalibration of its earlier Ahmet Davutoglu led ‘friendly relations’ initiative.
However, the news that Turkish tanks and Ankara backed rebel forces entered Jarablus in order to clear ISIS from the border region and claim land for the rebels is a net gain for Washington, as much as it is for short-term Turkish objectives. The US receives support in its fight against ISIS while demonstrating its support for Turkish interests. For Ankara, if successful, the strategy would protect the Turkish border, strengthen Ankara backed rebels, the Free Syrian Army, in the war for Aleppo and reduce the chances of further ISIS attacks in Turkey. Of course, this is before considering the Kurdish question.
Nevertheless, an expansion in Turkey’s role increases the risk of direct conflict and tensions with Russia, likely through a repeat of the November 2015 scenario, but it also highlights the zero sum game that Ankara and Moscow are playing in Syria. Any difficulty between Turkey and Russia may well threaten the progress they have made in diplomatic, economic and energy agreements. Any progress in bilateral ties could at the very least be slowed. This is by way of jeopardising the prerequisite of any strategic relationship — cooperation.
While both now share similar objectives regarding ISIS, which explains the Lavrov — Kerry talks in Geneva and increased prospect for an agreement, their other goals remain in juxtaposition. Turkey wishes to see the fall of Assad and the control of Syria by the Sunni Muslim majority that will side with Turkey going forward, despite Ankara’s recent conciliatory tone toward the Assad regime. Russia uses its Syrian bombing campaign to prop up Assad, in order to maintain its naval base at Tartus and guarantee Iran’s links to and dependence on Russia. It would also like to avoid the US and Turkey expanding their presence in the region, in turn strengthening their positions on Russia’s southern flank. The loss of Tartus would intensify Russian fears over Black Sea access, continuing their reliance upon good relations with Turkey. Its boldest foreign policy actions from the Georgian war to the Ukrainian war and Crimean annexation have centred on the Black Sea. Russia’s recent naval expansion and control of Sevastopol has extended its power projection within the Black Sea, in direct opposition to its historic nemesis: Turkey.
For the Turks, the key to the incursion is the Kurds. While Erdogan maintains and strengthens relations with the Iraqi Kurdish region Turkey desperately wants to finish off the PKK and ensure an end to Turkish Kurd secessionist hopes. The success of the YPG in the Syrian conflict raises the possibility that a post-war autonomous Kurdish region within Syria could be established unilaterally or through negotiated settlement. Turkey would see such an outcome as a precursor to the inevitable formation of an independent Kurdistan, which could look towards Turkey’s entire south-east region and 14 million Kurdish citizens. By driving ISIS out of the border region and forcing a Kurdish withdrawal east of the Euphrates Turkey would achieve its double objective of helping its Syrian rebel allies and stopping further Kurdish dominion over the border, thus securing its southern flank.
The fact that the Americans were initially providing Turkey with air support and instructing the Kurds to fall back suggests they are attempting to mend relations with Ankara after the post-coup attempt recriminations and Turkey’s Russia recalibration. Turkey is unlikely to have entered Syria the way it did without significant planning and agreement from Washington.
The US won’t extradite Fethullah Gulen, but they will use their influence over the Kurds to give Turkey a potential win. With a retreat of the YPG in Syria, in the medium term, Turkey would have more breathing room in its engagement with the PKK, even though PKK attacks in Turkey’s Kurdish regions will continue in scope and intensity in the short term.
The move also indicates that Washington fully comprehends the importance of Syria to Ankara and its issues with the Kurds. While the US has generally utilised the Kurds as a regional agent, exploiting their aspirations vis-a-vis Kurdistan, their interests will be disregarded if they conflict with more important short and medium term objectives. Naturally, the US places more value in its relationship with Turkey than it does with the Kurds.
Additionally, the Americans are attempting to limit the progress in the Russia-Turkey relationship after Erdogan’s St. Petersburg visit. The Turkish incursion heightens the tensions, guaranteeing a somewhat strained relationship between the two former imperial powers. The Russians have already publicly criticised Turkey’s bombing of the YPG and SDF. In the short term, it keeps Turkey away from the Russian camp.
Turkey and Russia have been here before and they could easily return to it. The downing of the Russian jet in 2015 was presented by western media as hubris on the part of Erdogan, a decision he had desperately wanted to take in order to warn the Russians. As a side note, the western media’s Putin-like obsession with Erdogan and their willingness to analyse every development in Ankara tells us the foreign policy anger at Turkey in Washington, London and Paris. They would much prefer a docile Turkish political leadership and foreign policy.
The Russian imposition of sanctions and the cancellation of flights between the two states hurt the Turkish economy and especially tourism industry at a time when it could not afford further damage. However, it was also Russia that presented so-called evidence that Turkey was assisting ISIS by buying smuggled oil from ISIS held territory, a line of thought that has since been parroted by the western media without credible evidence, even though large quantities of ISIS oil was sold, via Kurdish Iraq, to Israel and the Assad regime. The ease at which Putin was able to attack Erdogan and Turkey will ensure that any strategic partnership is just that — strategic, a necessary pivot in response to Ankara’s difficulties with the west.
However, the news that Turkish and rebel forces have engaged with the YPG and the SDF in Manbij, a town 38km south of Jarablus, is not a positive development for Turkey or the conflict as a whole. If the fighting continues beyond September, it complicates the entire conflict further. The sight of two American allies fighting will benefit Moscow in Syria and beyond. For Washington and Ankara, the campaign may end up being a net negative, a by-product of a miscalculation.
Washington’s criticism of Turkey’s expanding campaign would suggest it is having regrets about the scale of the operation. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, had earlier admitted that the post-coup attempt Turkish military purges had complicated cooperation on account of the interlocutory position of those officers in Turkish-American relations. This speaks to Turkey’s pivot away from Washington and the high probability that the Turkish army’s operations will continue until Ankara is satisfied its objectives have been achieved.
As signalled by the government-linked newspaper Daily Sabah, Turkey appears to be pursuing its long held desire of a safe-zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, creating a Turkish-controlled corridor of 30 km on Syrian soil. Having earlier pushed the Obama administration for such a safe-zone the Turks are either pursuing this strategy unilaterally or with the acquiescence of Washington. However, even this has the potential to result in direct military contact with the Assad regime, and therefore Russia and Iran, in the north-west region around Aleppo.
While the US will need to use its influence to ensure a Kurdish withdrawal if it wants to assist Turkey, the longer this initial incursion lasts the more dangerous the potential blow-back for Washington and Ankara becomes. The expansion of anti-ISIS forces will not be worth it if the Turks and Kurds don’t stop fighting beyond Manbij. The SDF and YPG could decide to advance with their objective of linking the Kurdish-controlled zone east of the Euphrates to the isolated pocket in northwest Syria around the town of Afrin. If they do, they will be calling John Kerry’s bluff over his threat of ending US support if they do not fall back. The United States still needs Kurdish forces in Syria.
Alternatively, there is the possibility the 150km distance between Manbij and Afrin is too much even for the SDF and YPG, precipitating a withdrawal sooner rather than later. At worst, fighting will continue either until Turkey expands its bombing campaign or until the United States applies sufficient pressure.
Turkey’s incursion into Syria, combined with Iran’s withdrawal of Russia’s Hamadan airbase access, has the potential to increase tensions in Ukraine. While Putin would be unwilling to fight two wars simultaneously, he might consider a short term scale-back of operations in Syria so that Turkey can achieve its anti-Kurd objectives, combined with an escalation in Ukraine. John Kerry’s ceasefire talks in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov highlights the fear both parties have over further escalations. Both are attempting to reach a consensus in order to avoid a worsening spiral and to solidify their own positions. Such a move would reduce the risk of Russia coming into direct contact with the US and Turkey, while Putin could use his Ukraine strategy as a way of regaining the initiative in the run-up to September’s Duma elections and the upcoming talks over Ukraine.