Turkey has been drawn further into the Syrian conflict as its army shells positions held by the Kurdish militia YPG in Northern Syria, ignoring calls from Washington and Brussels to cease military actions there.
Turkey’s military has hit Kurdish militia group People’s Protection Units (YPG) targets for four days as Kurdish forces made advances in Northern Syria.
Turkey’s shelling of the Kurds comes shortly after US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov unveiled a plan in Munich on February 13 for the cessation of hostilities in Syria to prepare ground for peace talks already postponed until February 23.
Turkey’s military actions obviously are not helping international efforts to end the conflict but only make the situation more complex on the ground, putting Ankara at odds with its close ally, the US.
Realising that the YPG is the most effective force in Syria in the fight against Islamic State, Washington has been cooperating with the Kurdish group, which Ankara sees as a terrorist organisation because of its close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Washington is now caught between its long-time ally Turkey and strategic partner YPG in Syria. Ankara says the US must now make a decision and choose between Turkey and the Kurdish militia.
Ankara’s worst nightmare is becoming true: the YPG, backed by Russian air strikes, has gained territory just across its borders by exploiting the political vacuum in Northern Syria. The Turkish military started to hit YPG targets when Kurdish forces captured a former air base and moved closer to the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo.
But, apparently Turkey’s attempts to stop Kurdish forces are failing: On February 16, Syria Democratic Forces, an umbrella group which includes the YPG, took control of around 70% of the town of Tal Rifaat, seizing territory close to the Turkish border and pushing east towards Islamic State-held territory, Today’s Zaman reported.
Many difficult questions are emerging now: How far is Turkey willing to go in Syria? Can it act alone and enter Syria? Would it even risk a war?
Recent statements coming from top Turkish officials suggesting that Ankara will not send its troops into Syria provide some comfort.
Turkey’s Kurdish nightmare
When the civil broke out in Syria some five years ago, Ankara’s geopolitical agenda was focused merely on one thing: removing President Bashar al-Assad from power. Confident that Assad’s days were numbered, Ankara immediately started to support the armed Syrian opposition groups, including, according to some Western media reports, radical jihadists.
But the civil war has taken a strange twist over the past year, bringing some surprises for Ankara: the Kurds, led by the Kurdish Democratic Union’s (PYD), have become Washington’s most reliable ally, and Assad, with the support of Russia, has changed the balance of power on the ground, regaining territories from the opposition groups. Now, the Syrian army is just 25km away from the Turkish border and the YPG is extending its presence along the border.
The last thing the government in Ankara wants to see is an autonomous Kurdish entity across the border. Such a formation in Northern Syria can stoke separatism among Turkey’s own Kurds.
Moreover, if the Kurds take control of Azez, Turkey will no longer be able to deliver supplies to the other Syrian opposition forces, which will undermine these groups’ position against the regime forces. That is why Ankara warned the YPG, the PYD’s military unit, that it will face the harshest reaction if its fighters approach the town again.
What are Ankara’s options if the YPG continues to move towards the Turkish border?
Rumours circulated over the past weeks that Turkey is preparing to send troops into northern Syria.
“What is happening on the Turkish-Syrian border gives grounds to think that Turkey is preparing a military invasion,” Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on February 4. Ankara dismissed Russian claims.
Maybe Ankara is not planning an outright invasion, but it is trying other options to remain a key player on the Syrian chessboard. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak reported on February that “as many as 500 fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered Syrian territory through Turkey to defend the town of Azez”.
An earlier statement by the Syrian government, however, told a different story. Shortly after the Turkish military started to hit YPG targets, 12 pickups with machine guns mounted on them were on their way from Turkey into Syrian territory, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said on February 14. The pickups were accompanied by 100 gunmen, some of them are believed to be Turkish soldiers and Turkish mercenaries, according to the Syrian government.
Russia claims that Turkey is still assisting jihadists and armed mercenaries to enter Syria to reinforce the battle-ravaged forces of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. Turkey has responded by saying that Russia committed an obvious war crime by firing missiles on a hospital in Northern Syria, killing civilians.
“If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organisation and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response,” PM Ahmet Davutoglu threatened on February 15.
It is unclear what Turkey’s “decisive” response would be against a “nuclear Russia”. After Turkey downed a Russian bomber in November last year near the Syrian border, Moscow deployed advanced S-400 air-defence missile systems in Syria. Turkish jets are no longer flying missions over Syria.
“Turkey will face Russia and Iran if carries out a ground intervention in Syria,” warned Konstantin Kosachov, head of the Russian Federal Parliament International Affairs Committee. “Turkey will have to stand against Russia alone and will lack Western support if it decides to launch a ground incursion into Syria.”
Turkey’s ambitious but erratic Syria policies have dragged the country into the bizarre position that it is now against everybody and at odds with every party involved in the Syrian conflict: the regime in Damascus is Ankara’s number one enemy; tension with Moscow is growing every day; the YPG has now become a national security threat.
Washington’s Turkish dilemma
Ankara and Washington are also deeply divided over the PYD. "Are you [the US] on our side or the side of the terrorist PYD and the PKK?" President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked in a speech in Ankara on February 10. The region has become a “sea of blood” because of Washington’s failure to recognise the PYD is a terrorist organisation, he said.
Turkey even summoned the U.S ambassador John Bass to convey the government’s displeasure after a State Department spokesman said that Washington did not see the PYD as a terrorist organisation.
US Vice President Joe Biden had a telephone conversation on February 14 with Davutoglu to soothe Ankara’s concerns. Biden talked about US efforts to discourage Syrian Kurdish forces from exploiting current circumstances to seize additional territory near the Turkish border. But he also urged Turkey to show reciprocal restraint by ceasing artillery strikes.
The US and Turkey have been facing this dilemma since late-2014 over what to do with the moderate opposition, Akin Unver, an assistant professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, told bneIntelliNews. “The US on its part, has been largely indecisive on what it really wants to do in Syria,” Unver says.
Given the reality on the ground, it is difficult to image Washington giving up on the PYD as the other so-called “moderate opposition forces” in Syria remain weak and fragmented.
“With this [hitting YPG targets] action – which directly opposes US policy – Turkey is not only sending a message to the YPG about its red lines, but also to the US and its Western allies that it is willing to act unilaterally to counter the group’s advance,” Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), told bneIntelliNews. “How much that message will resonate with the YPG, or with Washington, remains to be seen”, she added.
Back to realpolitik
A Turkish incursion means a direct military confrontation with Russia. Are Turkey’s Nato allies ready to go to war with Putin just because Turkey’s national interest are in danger? Will Western powers let Turkey spoil the Syrian peace talks with its military actions?
Turkey’s key allies, the US, France and the EU, which perceive Islamic State not the YPG as the main threat, have called on Turkey to stop shelling Kurdish targets. As international pressure mounts, Ankara seems to have accepted the bitter reality: it cannot act alone in Syria.
Turkey is in favour of a ground operation into neighbouring Syria but only with its allies, a senior Turkish official told reporters on February 16, Reuters reported. The official clearly said: “Turkey is not going to have a unilateral ground operation. We are asking coalition partners that there should be a ground operation. We want a ground operation with our international allies," the official said. "We are discussing this with allies. If there is a consensus, Turkey will take part.”
But, a joint ground operation seems a remote possibility at the moment, as Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu admits.
“Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some European allies want ground troops deployed in Syria but there is no consensus in the coalition and a strategy for such an operation has not been seriously debated,” Cavusoglu told Reuters on February 16 in an interview.
“Some countries like us, Saudi Arabia and some other Western European countries have said that a ground operation is necessary ... But to expect this only from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar is neither right nor realistic,” he admitted.