Turkey’s nightmare is unfolding in Syria
Neither a transition nor a change of leadership appear imminent in Syria
With another ISIS suspected suicide bombing hitting Turkey last weekend, a growing influx of refugees of 2.7 million, and a more muscular Kurdish military front in Syria, it is safe to say that the Syrian war has become a real-time nightmare for Ankara with no real exit strategies.
When Turkey took a forceful position in the fall of 2011 against the Assad regime and in support of its opponents, the whole calculus was to avoid a long bleeding front on its border and help a more like-minded governing model to take shape in Damascus.
Today, these two goals have completely crumbled in the face of multiple border threats for Turkey and the fracturing of Syria between competing governing structures, militias, and terrorist organizations.
Syria’s emerging new threats are prompting a pivot in Turkey’s calculus, prioritizing – with the help of Russia and Iran – the immediate goals of moving against the Kurdish groups and countering ISIS, while shelving the Assad challenge at least until the Barack Obama administration leaves office.
Turkey’s new priorities
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the first to call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down in November 2011, this goal no longer appears urgent nor realistic for Turkey. Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim told reporters last Friday that Assad could have a role in the interim leadership or transition, but he must play no part in its future.
Neither a transition nor a change of leadership appear imminent in Syria which makes Turkey’s gesture on Assad more a case of political realism, and messaging to his allies. The more urgent priority that Yildrim pressed and that has been subject of ongoing diplomatic traffic between Turkey and Iran, and between Ankara and Moscow following Erdogan’s visit, is Syria’s unity, “territorial integrity” and "not to allow the country to be divided on any ethnic base."
Syria’s emerging new threats are prompting a pivot in Turkey’s calculus, prioritizing – with the help of Russia and Iran – the immediate goals of moving against the Kurdish groups and countering ISIS, while shelving the Assad challenge at least until the Obama administration leaves officeJoyce Karam
Countering the Kurdish push for more autonomy in Syria has taken over Turkey’s calculus in the war, and is the driving force behind Erdogan’s new overtures to both Iran and Russia.
Assad for his part has flirted back with Turkey attacking PYD forces in Hasaka, with his army branding the group as Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated terrorist by Turkey. Attacking the YPG and labeling the PYD and PKK is music to Erdogan’s ears who could ironically find common ground with Assad whom he called two months ago “a more advanced terrorist” than ISIS.
The same Kurdish forces that Assad is attacking, have made with the help of the US progress against ISIS, in places like Kobani and more recently Manbij and as part of a bigger coalition called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkey according to Syrian opposition sources has requested from Washington that SDF leaves Manbij after the liberation and to avoid ethnic changes in the town from Arab to Kurdish. The same sources add that the failure to achieve this has angered Ankara who could exercise a stronger military hand in the North both against ISIS and YPG.
Turkey also appears to be responding by supporting a different coalition in fighting ISIS. Syrian rebels allied with Turkey are readying an attack on the town of Jarablus now under control of ISIS. Rebel sources also say Turkey’s help has been "crucial" in the Aleppo offensive against the Assad regime. This indicates that Ankara is walking on multiple ropes in Syria with three goals in mind, supporting its proxies, countering the Kurdish expansion, and fighting ISIS.
Impact on US policy
The Turkish readjustment in Syria will be mostly felt on the US strategy relying on these same Kurdish forces that Turkey wants to counter in the fight against ISIS.
Ankara’s patience appears to have completely run out with the Obama administration ahead of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden this Wednesday. Evidently, Turkey’s repositioning towards Iran and Russia against the a more robust Kurdish force will complicate Obama’s plans to encircle ISIS in Syria and liberate Mosul, Raqqa or both before he leaves office. Assad’s bombing of YPG in Hassaka also impedes these plans.
Finding a new arrangement in the fallout of Manbij is critical for both Washington and Ankara to derail ISIS in Syria. Yildrim pointing out that Turkey’s role will be more active in next six months is a signal to the US administration that Ankara will move to protect its interest in Syria until Obama leaves office.
For now, Syria is completely a new war for Turkey with different set of priorities and challenges than those that were in place at the outset of the conflict. Ousting Assad or establishing a more friendly government is no longer a realistic priority for Turkey as it readjusts with different actors for a longer and messier conflict across its border.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam