Turkey’s Syrian dilemma

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 30 Sep 2021

Ankara “fully supports the interim coalition government of Syria, who are the representatives of the Syrian people,” the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared a couple of weeks ago, but what might that be? Cavusoglu was, in fact, referring to a newly formed coalition among a handful of Syrian opposition figures from some Turkish backed militant factions that control only a very small portion of Syrian territory.

Contrary to the impression the state-run Turkish media tries to give, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) policy in Syria has met with continual setbacks. The regime in Damascus, for its part, has recovered most Syrian territory, regained much of its confidence and now seems poised to take back more. It has also announced that the heads of the Syrian and Turkish intelligence agencies will meet soon in Baghdad. According to leaks in Ankara – deliberate, according to some commentators – the Turkish government is keen to talk with its loathed enemy. The purpose, ostensibly, is to propose cooperation to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria on the border.

Damascus has also appealed to the UN Secretary General and General Assembly to take “a clear and unequivocal stance against the aggressive practices of the Turkish regime” in Syria. Russia is not unsympathetic. The Kremlin has grown increasingly impatient with Turkish behaviour in Syria, and Russian media has notched up criticism of Ankara’s failure to live up to its commitments to eliminate the presence of terrorist groups in the designated de-escalation zones in Idlib. Recently, during Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s 14 September visit to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly said that the main problem in Syria is the illegitimate presence of foreign forces, referring primarily to Turkish and US troops. Their military presence violates international law, he said, because they were not invited by the Syrian government and they did not have a UN mandate to be there.

For the Kremlin, Syria offers several ways to counter Ankara’s machinations in Azerbaijan, the Ukraine and, most recently, Crimea. One purpose of the recent consultations between some Russian officials and their US counterparts would have been to weaken Turkey’s already tenuous position in Syria. Russian-US talks might also encourage serious talks between the Syrian regime and the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the US supports. An accommodation between Damascus and the chief enemy of the Turkish-backed militant Islamist forces in northern Syria would counteract Turkey’s military presence east of the Euphrates. It is noteworthy in this context that Washington has effectively relaxed the Caesar Act by turning a blind eye to the entry of Iranian oil through the Syrian port of Tartus and the flow of Egyptian gas and electricity through Syrian territory, via Jordan, to Lebanon.

 Turkey has emerged as the weakest foreign player in Syria. Worse, this is obvious to everyone, including public opinion at home. Much to the ruling party’s dismay, opposition forces are now in a position to say, “I told you so.” They had warned repeatedly against the folly of falling deeper into the Syrian quagmire, and can point to the disastrous rebound effects, from dire economic repercussions to mounting violence against Syrian refugees. As the AKP stares at further declines in its popularity ratings, it is not surprising that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned to Putin whom he met on Wednesday. But will Russia offer Turkey a face-saving exit strategy?

There is no doubt Turkey has little room for manoeuvre in Syria. When Turkish military targets in Idlib were struck by the very jihadist forces Ankara has supported, armed and trained for years, the Turkish reaction was not to hit back, but rather to lash out at Syrian Kurds in the north. Turkey claims its strikes are aimed at the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Indeed, so far it appears that the strikes have not extended to the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), despite Erdogan’s fury at not getting his way during his meeting with Biden on the fringe of the inauguration of the UN General Assembly last week. Erdogan afterwards accused Biden of supporting terrorists because of Washington’s backing of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a main component.

But there was no hiding the fact that Turkish soldiers have fallen. The government vows it will avenge them and Turkish state television has reported that a number of Syrian militants were “neutralised.” But much of the Turkish public is sceptical and an even greater portion is fed up of their country’s involvement in a conflict that has only wrought enormous attrition at home.

Ankara has tried to use Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the dominant jihadist force in Idlib, to overcome smaller jihadist entities. It believed that this would give Russia the impression that it was meeting its end of the bargain in the Idlib ceasefire deal between Ankara and Moscow. Ankara simultaneously reorganised its Syrian allies in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in order to forestall a renewed Syrian-Russian offensive in Idlib. However, its plans failed because the factions it worked so hard to unite insisted on operating independently and attacking each other, committing human rights abuses against civilians in the process.

Two weeks ago, Turkey had another stab at this tactic. It announced the creation of the “Syrian Liberation Front” which hammers together five factions affiliated with the FSA. The chances are this will meet the same fate as its predecessor. Most of its members have become war profiteers and, while current exigencies might compel them to unify in form, their internal divisions and mutual antagonisms will resurface at the closest opportunity. The same occurred with the HTS, the former Al-Qaeda affiliate that Turkey had relied on most.

Turkey’s Syrian policy is headed for rougher days. The new liberation front is glaringly cosmetic. US-Russian dialogue is likely to pave the way to a compromise on the region controlled by the Syrian Kurds east of the Euphrates. Most importantly, a confrontation in Idlib is looming, with potentially disastrous repercussions.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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