After a week of acrimonious exchanges, Ankara’s agreement with Washington to observe a five-day-long halt to the Turkish incursion into northern Syria is a welcome development. It provides a valuable window for building the basis for a negotiated resolution of the conflict, provided that Ankara is given sufficient lee-way on its determination to create what it calls a ‘safe zone’. What has occasioned this temporary ceasefire?
Ankara’s objectives in launching its invasion have been clear from the start. Its primary aim is to destroy the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or, more specifically, its dominant militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it regards as a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The latter has been fighting for the autonomy of Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minority over several decades. Its secondary aim is to resettle 2 millions of 3.6 million Syrian refugees, most of whom are non-Kurds, and thus reduce their burden on Turkey.
A number of considerations seem to have come together to urge Turkey’s strong and determined President Tayyip Erdoğan to agree to an American proposed temporary ceasefire without necessarily abandoning his main objectives.
The first is the change of mind by President Donald Trump after having initially given the greenlight to Erdoğan to go ahead with his long-standing plan of invasion. Under enormous bi-partisan Congressional criticism and pressure from America’s European and Middle Eastern allies for having abandoned the US Kurdish partners in the fight against Isis, Trump decided to go for damage control. He suddenly condemned the Turkish offensives and called for an immediate ceasefire. He also imposed some sanctions on Turkey, with a promise of more to come, if Ankara failed to oblige. In his usual impulsive and contradictory fashion, he concurrently defended his decision on the withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria and intimated that the Kurds are not ‘angels’ either. All this helped Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit Erdoğan on a ‘kiss-and-makeup’ peacemaking mission.
The second is the SDF-Damascus deal that suddenly pitched Turkey against a combination of Kurdish and Syrian forces as well as, at least indirectly, the Syrian regime’s main backers, Iran and Russia. As a leading player in Syria, Moscow has said that it will not allow a confrontation between the Syrian and Turkish forces. It has quickly moved some of its troops to fill the gap left by the American withdrawal and to act as a buffer between the Turkish and Syrian forces. And Ankara knows that Moscow, like Tehran, ultimately wants the territorial integrity of Syria under the Bashar al-Assad regime, and is unlikely to stand with Turkey against the Syrian regime.
The third is Turkey’s relations with the US and other fellow NATO members on the one hand, and with Russia and Iran on the other. Ankara’s ties with the first set have grown strained, especially since the 2016 failed coup against President Erdoğan and the latter’s harsh crackdown on the opposition since then. This, together with Turkey’s purchase of the advanced Russian S-400 missile system, has caused a critical rift between Turkey and its NATO allies. To compensate, Erdoğan has sought to strategically tilt towards Moscow and Tehran, despite having backed different sides in the Syrian conflict. Turkey’s Syrian operations carry the potential to undermine this repositioning towards the East, and leaves Ankara without too many friends on the world stage.
The fourth is the cost of the Turkish incursion. It could prove to be too exorbitant at a time when Turkey’s economy and currency are experiencing a serious downward trend. In addition, the resettlement and maintenance of the refugees in a ‘safe zone’ would require its own expenses. Given international criticism of the Turkish incursion and its generation of a humanitarian crisis, as well as enablement of Isis prisoners to escape from SDF’s control, Ankara could not possibly expect to receive too much outside sympathy or assistance. In the end, Turkey may end up bearing all the costs – something that Ankara wishes to avoid.
Given the complex web of re-alliances and contrasting loyalties that Turkey’s actions have generated, one wonders whether President Erdoğan in the first place had made a sound cost-benefit analysis of his Syrian strategy. He certainly has the support of a great majority of Turks for his military campaign, who have been carried away on a wave of traditional Turkish nationalism in the face of the PKK’s separatist actions and the growing burden of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, he must be cognisant of the high military, human and financial costs of the invasion, not to mention its potential political consequences for himself.
When the dust settles, the degree of domestic opposition that Erdoğan has faced since the failed coup of 2016 may well revive. In the 31 March 2019 municipal elections, he lost Turkey’s two most important cities – Istanbul and Ankara – to the opposition, causing a noticeable dent in his power and authority. The costs and consequences of the Syrian campaign carry the risk of providing substantial ammunition to the opposition, especially if it does not end swiftly and successfully. He has played a very controversial and complex hand, with a risk regarding his own political future.
Amin Saikal is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and author of Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic (Princeton University Press, 2019); and co-author (with James Piscatori) of Islam Beyond the Borders: The Umma in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
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