Turkey has many enemies but foremost among them are Turkish-Kurdish separatists and the Syrian-Kurds who are allied with them. Like Arabs, the Kurds are made up of different groups of people who live in areas in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. On several occasions, Turkish forces crossed over into Iraq and pursued Turkish-Kurdish groups.
“The number one enemy” became a threat over the course of a few months as Syrian-Kurdish factions expanded their control over a vast area, which some media reports estimate at 600 kilometers stretching from northern Syria to Turkish borders. The secret is that Syria’s Kurds, despite their leftist tendencies, have volunteered to spearhead the coalition’s war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and as such have received large-scale US support – both intelligence and logistics wise – which has enabled them to expand.
The various parties - the Turks, the Iranians, the Russians, the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition - did not mind empowering the Kurds as long as the aim was simply to fight ISIS. However, the Kurds have violated agreements and seized complete control over some cities and towns between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. They did not settle at just fighting ISIS but oversaw the expulsion of residents from entire areas of land! As a result of their massive expansion, they engaged in several confrontations with Turkish and ISIS forces and even with Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The Turks felt threatened by the actions of the People’s Protection Units of the Democratic Union Party. They saw inherent in those actions the plans for a state which would threaten their borders and the unity of their country. Therefore, they decided to declare war inside Syria for the first time since the crisis erupted five years ago.
One cannot fail to see the threat that the war in Syria poses to all the countries which share borders with it. Turkey shares the longest and most intertwined border with Syria. Syria also shares borders with Iraq, which lost control over its borders a long time ago and also lost around one third of its territory to ISIS. Furthermore, Syria also shares a border with Jordan which has seized complete control over the boundary line but only after one million refugees crossed into the country and after huge battles erupted close by in the Syrian governorate of Daraa. Meanwhile, there are Iranian forces and Hezbollah militias stationed against the Free Syrian Army which is posted inside Syrian territories, just north of Jordan.
Can Turkey transform its military involvement in Syria into a political process that encourages the various parties to agree to a political solution which will end the war?Abdulrahman al-Rashed
The Turks viewed the Kurdish expansion as a threat to their country’s unity so they entered Syria and pursued Kurdish militias. The coalition forces, led by the US, withdrew their backing within the context of justified agreements.
Halting Kurdish attempts
The Turkish army’s swift victory in Jarablus and other areas may result in an agreement that restrains Syria’s Kurds and puts a stop to Kurdish attempts to create an area similar to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, which has been semi-autonomous since 1990.
Despite the enmity between the two regimes, Assad and Turkey agree on rejecting the establishment of any Kurdish entity in these regions. Ankara’s government considers this a plan to destabilize it because the new Syrian-Kurdish region would be established on its southern borders and would be a backyard to the separatist Turkish-Kurdish movement. The same applies to the Assad regime which fears that the Kurdish entity would be a Trojan horse for coalition forces to engineer a plan for change in Syria – just as the Iraqi-Kurdish entity did when it participated in toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
I think Turkey could have, in the first few years of the war, secured its borders and even expanded its influence into a large governorate such as the neighboring governorate of Aleppo in order to influence the outcome of the conflict. However, it seems that Ankara did not desire to muddy the waters by directly intervening and this has resulted in increased threats against it today. In all cases, we must take into account the possible obstacles which may have influenced Ankara’s decisions: it is committed to the rules of engagement imposed by NATO defense treaties which state that the involvement of a member country in a war without the alliance’s approval does not obligate the latter to defend it. This must be taken into account in addition to threats related to the violation of international laws regarding conflicts and sovereignty.
Can Turkey transform its military involvement in Syria into a political process that encourages the various parties to agree to a political solution which will end the war? Turkey will be a stronger player than before but I rule out the cooperation of Iran and Russia which don’t yet think it’s necessary to exclude Assad.
Any solution that keeps Assad in power will fuel the war even if all politicians agree on keeping him in power. Assad has no army and security forces on ground. In the past, these troops allowed him to govern by force but he currently does not have any forces that follow his orders. The army currently fighting on his behalf is made up of Iranian forces, Hezbollah and Iraqi militias while his air force consists of Russian fighters orchestrating the war on his behalf. Even if Syrian opposition leaders submit to a solution that keeps Assad in power, the fighters will rebel against their leaders because given the extent of the hostility - half a million people have been killed so far - it’s not possible to impose upon them a solution that has been signed in a Swiss hotel.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Aug. 28, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashedSHOW MORE