“Today or Sunday, a land and air operation will commence in northern Syria,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Saturday, 5 October. Nothing of the sort has happened yet, at least by the time this report was filed. The Turkish army has amassed more troops along the border across from Tel Abyad in Raqqa governorate, but that could be more of Ankara’s sabre rattling.
Meanwhile, a large and growing segment of the Turkish public is disgruntled by their country’s involvement in the Syrian “quagmire”. Not that this has kept critics from asking, sarcastically, when exactly this operation will be carried out. The “Erdogan echo chamber” has been receiving a lot of play on social networking sites.
The term is inspired by the president’s and his cronies’ repeated threats to invade northern Syria. The phenomenon has existed for many months, but the reverberations have increased in stridency and frequency in recent weeks, hitting an ear-splitting pitch since Erdogan’s return from New York end of September.
And, no wonder. That was not a particularly successful visit from Erdogan’s viewpoint. No support was forthcoming for his project in northern Syria from the US or the UN. His sales pitch for a scheme to return a couple of million Syrian refugees to a Turkish run “safe zone” paradise with a house and garden per family found no buyers.
“That wasn’t a president talking at the UN, it was a real estate developer,” quipped an opposition party leader. Erdogan’s warning, “our preparations along the border are ready!” failed to produce the desired panic and his foreign minister’s gripe that Washington’s commitments with regard to the “safe zone” were hollow failed to elicit the desired sympathy.
So, once back home Erdogan bared his teeth and warned, “I could press the button at any moment,” while his Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, growled at critics, “war is no laughing matter.”
Then, to prepare the public for the approaching hour, the government cancelled all medical staff leaves and a security official stated, “we’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time. Now we’ve arrived at a stage where it appears necessary that an operation could be carried out at any moment.”
Political opponents recalled how the Erdogan regime had contributed to turning Syria into what it is today: the truckloads of weapons it supplied to takfiri groups in Syria, the facilities it furnished to jihadists to travel through Anatolia into Syria, the logistical support it provided them in Syria and back in Turkey, including training and free medical treatment.
Some observers believe that if Turkish forces did go ahead with an incursion into Syria east of the Euphrates, it would be limited and advance no more than a couple of kilometres. Its primary purpose would be to save face and stem the impatience of their ultranationalist electoral allies, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) need now more than ever.
Yet, even a limited incursion would aggravate tensions between Ankara, on the one hand, and the US and France, on the other. Washington and Paris are strongly opposed to unilateral Turkish action, especially given that both have forces on the ground in Syria.
As for the people on whom Erdogan has set his crosshairs, the Syrian Kurds, they do not seek a military confrontation but they are prepared. And they are not alone. As Ankara sounds the war drums, helicopters of the US-led international coalition are flying up and down the border in the vicinity of Tel Abyad on the lookout for Turkish troop movements.
In addition, the Kurds’ compatriots have begun to send in reinforcements. A 100 Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) military vehicles have already arrived at Tel Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn. One convoy set out from Al-Jabaliya, one of the largest US bases in Syria, while others set out from Al-Hassaka and Qamishli.
The convoys reportedly include Arab fighters carrying mid-size weapons, explosives experts, marksmen, as well as supplies of heavy machine guns. Also, in the course of the past 10 days, 300 trucks arrived in the areas controlled by the SDF in eastern Syria carrying US aid used for logistics and military purposes.
“We are more prepared than ever, politically, morally and militarily. Therefore, it would be a mistake to think that an attack would go without a response. The Afrin scenario will not be repeated east of the Euphrates,” said the prominent Syrian Kurdish leader Ehmed Sheiko in interview with Yeni Ozgur Politika.
“The politicians in the ruling AKP and Erdogan must realise we mean what we say, so they and all who support the military option should know that it will not be a picnic for the Turkish forces. This will not be another Jerablus or Afrin, so they should abandon these schemes of theirs.”
He added: “They want to alter the demographic structure of northern Syria just as they altered the demographic structure of Afrin. I can confidently state that neither the Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Circassians or Assyrians, which is to say no one living in northern Syria, can accept this project of Erdogan’s.”
Sheiko, in the interview, said that Ankara’s ultranationalist fanaticism and Ottoman irredentist ambitions in Syria would collapse on the shoals of northern Syria. He believes that Erdogan is aware of this and maintains that the Turkish strongman’s bellicosity is his way of covering up for his repressive domestic policies, Turkey’s economic and social crises, and his party’s declining popularity.
Will Erdogan take the risk? Will he lead his country into what could be a fierce and protracted battle that would only drain more of Turkey’s dwindling resources? He will certainly be tempted now in light of the phone call he had with Trump on Sunday night in which the US president gave the green light for a Turkish “operation”.
The White House, in a statement, announced that the US would be withdrawing its forces out of the area, effectively abandoning the allies that made it possible to defeat the Islamic State group.
But could it be a trap? The French are still there plus the SDF still has the heavy weaponry that the US supplied to use in the fight against terrorism.
If Erdogan does step in, sinking Turkey deeper into the Syrian quagmire with the likelihood of an even greater toll among Turkish soldiers, it is not difficult to foresee the consequences this will have for his regime.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Deeper into the quagmire