Erdogan's assault in Syria will draw in regional powers, and risks handing Turkey its own Yemen-style quagmire
The Turkish president, who always championed Turkey’s ‘zero-problems’ policy with its neighbours, has ended up kicking off what has become a ‘zero-peace’ reality
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has wasted no time with the green light granted by his opposite number in Washington. He has ordered his military into north-east Syria in the first stage of what many fear will be a bid to ethnically cleanse an area of 30-40km deep into Syria of its Kurdish local inhabitants.
France, Britain, Germany, and most Arab countries, lashed out at Erdogan. US Senator Lindsay Graham said he is leading a bipartisan effort to impose “severe sanctions against Turkey for their invasion.”
Erdogan will brush this off for now, and has reason to enjoy his new-found freedom, but this will not be a stroll. It risks becoming another Yemen-like quagmire where the Turkish military could be bogged down for years to come.
The Turkish military operation, enabled by President Trump’s wrong-headed betrayal of the Kurds, carries one true objective for Erdogan: political redemption. By offering a route to solve his refugee dilemma, Erdogan thinks he could turn the wheel of Turkey’s domestic politics, and bounce back from the humiliation his ruling AKP party suffered in the mayoral elections in Istanbul this summer.
But what is widely thought of in Turkey as a simple dash over the border, contains a deadly baited trap behind the hills of Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain and other Kurdish towns.
Erdogan, who always championed Turkey’s “zero-problems” policy with its neighbours, has ended up kicking off what has become a “zero-peace” reality. At the very least, he is drawing up a long list of potential enemies.
Chief among these is Saudi Arabia, still reeling from the wounds inflicted by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and Turkey’s central role in the revelations that emerged. The Saudis, presumably, would have been waiting for the Turkish move, and the aim might well be to adapt the tactics used by Iran against the Saudis in the Yemen stalemate. It would turn north-east Syria into another Hudaydah, the Yemeni port city where the Saudis and the Iran-backed Houthis have been at loggerheads for more than two years.
Saudi officials paid visits to northern Syria this summer and met Kurdish officials as part of a plan to invest $100mn in the area. Reports suggest that Saudi military and intelligence officers have been repeatedly seen in the area during recent months.
In Egypt, president Abdelfattah el-Sisi has issued a statement, together with the Greek and Cypriot leaders, condemning the "illegal and illegitimate" Turkish military operation in Syria, and warning against any Turkish attempts to undermine the territorial integrity of Syria.
As the bogeyman of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, Sisi has always been an obstacle in Egypt and Libya to the expansion of their Turkish-backed Islamist brand in the region. He has also maintained very close ties to the leadership of the SDF (The Syrian Democratic Forces), the core Kurdish force that played the central role in defeating Isis in Syria.
Reports highlighted Egypt’s offer to provide weapons to the PKK, the Kurdish group which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation, in the wake of the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin (north-west Syria) early last year.
Now the Kurds, after Trump’s betrayal, seem closer than ever to restoring their damaged relationships with al-Assad’s regime. This is not about what Assad wants from the Kurds, it’s rather about what he doesn’t want them to do. He – and the Iranians and the Russians, of course – don’t want to see Kurdish areas turned into a safe haven for the Americans, and are eager to oversee an end to any de facto autonomous region in the near future.
The Emiratis are not happy either. Since the beginning of the year, the UAE has stepped up its anti-Turkish efforts in the region in a bid to thwart any attempt from Erdogan to establish domination.
Turkey has accused the UAE government of being involved in a failed military coup against Erdogan’s regime in 2016. Erdogan survived of course, and many think the “coup” was in fact an orchestrated stunt to pave the way for a sweeping purge of dissidents from state and private institutions. Still, relations between Ankara and Abu Dhabi have not improved.
Erdogan’s move also stands at odds with the UAE’s strategic interests. Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus last year, in an attempt to prop up Assad’s regime, and it would not be happy to see Turkey, and its Al-Qaeda-like allies in the “Syrian National Army”, seizing the north and its resources.
Yes, this is Turkey’s real plan. According to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, the aim is to establish permanent military bases in north-east Syria, a copy-and-paste job from Turkish permanent bases in northern Iraq.
Turkey has previously built a university branch, hospitals, restored schools and trained personnel in the Syrian Kurdish towns of Azaz, Al-Bab, and Afrin in north-west Syria. Reports say it is planning to build an industrial zone in the region.
This injection of soft power goes hand in hand with Turkey’s security and political reshaping of the Kurdish areas.
So, in his bid to hinder the Kurds’ efforts to create an autonomous entity on Turkey’s borders, a plan which has Iran and Russia’s blessing for now, Erdogan’s aim is to instead build some kind of “Turkish autonomy” on Syrian soil.
But while the Kurds look vulnerable, the harsh reality of battle may reveal it is the Turks who are fragile.
There are many doubts surrounding the capabilities of Turkey’s army to operate alone – particularly following the purge of generals, officers and soldiers as part of Erdogan’s paranoid actions after 2016. There are greater doubts around handing Turkey the key to Isis prison cell.
Given Turkey’s history of backing Al-Qaeda fighters in Idlib and looking the other way as Isis volunteers flooded into Syria across its borders, Trump is playing a dangerous game, whether he realises it or not. Turkey may have rolled the dice first, but what looks like an opportunistic land grab could easily turn into catastrophe.