Turkey likely to continue Syria operations, key objectives debatable

Bassem Aly , Saturday 30 Jun 2018

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Istanbul, Turkey June 24, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

With the recent Turkish presidential-parliamentary elections finished, attention is likely to focus now on Ankara’s operations against Kurdish militants in Syria.

This is not speculation; President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said as much, speaking five days ago, after his electoral victory.

“These results show we will continue to liberate Syrian lands and open the way for our guests in our country to return home safely,” he said on Monday while addressing supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) outside its Ankara headquarters.

His success in the elections have clearly given him the popular support he was looking for to expand his operations in Syria.

Erdogan won 53 percent of the votes in the presidential polls, while the AKP secured 42.5 percent in parliament. Their electoral allies, the nationalist Movement Party (MHP), gained 11 percent, which secured a parliamentary majority for the ruling Islamists.

The Syrian operations began with fighting the Kurdish militants for control of Afrin and then Manbij, two northern Syrian cities, and—according to Turkish media reports—eastern Syria will come next.

But why is Turkey fighting the Kurds in Syria?

Experts have a range of answers.

For Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a politics professor at Northwestern University, the priority for Erdogan goes to military-strategic considerations.

“Erdogan’s main objective in Syria is to ensure Turkish interests and influence in the conflict and the region as a whole. This includes fighting Kurdish groups and it also involves ensuring that whatever order emerges after the war (if it ever ends) will be in structured to ensure that Turkey’s territorial integrity is not threatened, and that its economic ties and interests in the region are secured,” argued Shakman Hurd.

Although fragile ceasefires have previously been reached, the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PPK) have been fighting each other since 1984, as the latter insists on their right to self-rule in the Kurdish-majority southeast part of Turkey.

As a result, Ankara is nervous about the presence of other Kurdish armed groups in neighbouring countries.

In March, the Turkish army and the Free Syrian Army concluded a two-month campaign against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) with a victory in Afrin, a Kurdish city near the borders with Turkey.

The YPG withdrew from Afrin and moved to the hills.

Other analysts point to Erdogan’s domestic calculations. Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, believes that cross-border operations against Syrian Kurdish militants “lead to a rally-round-the-flag effect at home.”

A former parliamentarian in Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Aykan Erdemir, told Ahram Online that Erdogan “is also aware of the alarming rise in the anti-Syrian sentiment within Turkey,” and the operations allow him to cater both sentiments, “winning the support of nationalist voters and his ultranationalist ally MHP.”

“Erdogan’s long game in Syria is to eliminate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from all the regions it currently controls, and he is not concerned that this might ultimately bolster Assad, and his Russian and Iranian patrons, at the expense of US forces and their allies,” he noted.

It makes sense to think of the Turkish campaign as a bid to solve the refugee crisis.

According to UNHCR figures, over 5.6 million Syrians have fled the war since 2011, seeking refuge in neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Around 3.3 million Syria refugees are hosted by Turkey.

As Marc Pierini, a Carnegie scholar and ex-EU ambassador to Turkey, puts it: “the Turkish population has voiced increasing uneasiness with the number of Syrian refugees and the pressure on social infrastructure and labour market. Therefore, as a result of the election campaign, a stronger accent has been put on the return of Syrian refugees to Syria.”

But the support of the US for the Kurds could also be a key motive, for Ankara, to act militarily.

The Kurdish militants, in past years, have backed the operations of the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria against the so-called Islamic State militant group, and the United States has previously criticised Turkey, a NATO member, for its military offensives.

After the conclusion of the “Olive Branch” offensive in Afrin, the Turks started another months-long offensive, also against the YPG, in Manbij, which ended with a US-Turkish plan in early June to withdraw Kurdish militants from the city.

Few weeks later, the Turkish army tweeted: “As per the Manbij Roadmap and Safety Principles previously agreed upon, independent patrol activities by soldiers of Turkish Armed Forces and US Armed Forces have begun on the line between (the Turkish-controlled) area and Manbij.”

No further details were provided about the deal, but—even after the Manbij conflict stopped—it seems that US-Turkish relations, especially the military aspect, have become somewhat tense.

Testifying before the US Congress, US Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell said that “the prospects for Turkish military-industrial cooperation with the US, including F-35” will be affected when Turkey receives the S-400s, a Russian missile defence system.

“A decision on S-400 will qualitatively change the US-Turkish relationship in a way that would be very difficult to repair,” Mitchell warned.

However, the actual impact of these developments on the relations between both states, especially in terms of Syria, is hard to predict in the meantime.

Erdemir thinks that the actions of Erdogan, as a “die-hard anti-Western politician,” could “one day present enormous costs for all parties involved,” although he does not think that they will terminate either Turkey’s NATO membership or the EU membership process.

“He [Erdogan] does not shy away from cooperating with Moscow and Tehran at the expense of his NATO allies. Ankara’s existing relations with the West offer Erdogan leverage to exploit, allowing him to play a spoiler role that neither Russia nor Iran can play,” he said.

“There is a reluctance in the West to recognise the growing risk associated with Erdogan’s hostile stance as Ankara’s allies continue to appease the Turkish strongman and seek transactional deals for short-term political gain in domestic politics,” said the Turkish analyst.

For Shakman Hurd, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Washington refuses to extradite despite Erdogan’s accusations that he is behind the 2016 failed coup, is a key aspect in Turkey’s ongoing tensions with the US and Europe.

Yet, while stating that Erdogan will cooperate with the Russians, “if it’s in his interest in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere,” she believes that Erdogan “is becoming less pro-Western or more neutral or indifferent toward the West.”

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