Turkey gets its act together on Syria

M.K. Bhadrakumar August 23, 2016 1:34 PM (UTC+8)
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Six weeks are grossly insufficient for a country to recover from the trauma of a military coup attempt, which took over 300 lives in a single blood-soaked night of violence. But then, Turkish people are known for extraordinary resilience.

A Kurdish fighter stands with his weapon on the entrance of Hasaka Prison in the Ghwairan neighborhood of Hasaka
A Kurdish fighter stands with his weapon on the entrance of Hasaka Prison in the Ghwairan neighborhood of Hasaka, Syria, August 23, 2016.REUTERS/Rodi Said

If there is any doubt, take a trip to Canakkale in the Straits of Dardanelles and relive the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915-16. Against impossible odds, Turks took on three predatory imperial powers – Britain, France and Russia – and won.

Today’s circumstances are not very different – an existential crisis descended on the country due to a combination of internal and external factors. Internally, Turkish society got badly polarized in recent years and the Kurdish insurgency appeared with renewed vitality; on the other hand, Islamic State began slouching toward Turkey.

Externally, as the coup attempt was made on July 15, an old ally – the United States – remained indifferent while an ancient adversary – Russia – warmed up. Turkey agonizes over their intentions. The angst is understandable: Turkey cannot afford confrontation with the US, an ally of pivotal importance, and remains wary on the other hand of a delusionary alliance with Russia.

Turkey’s intervention in Syria to overthrow the Bashar Al-Assad regime has failed, but then, damage control demands continued intervention in newer form.

A weakened and fragmented Syria becomes a liability for Turkey. If the report is true that the deputy head of the Turkish intelligence traveled to Damascus on Sunday to discuss the security of Syria’s northern regions, it only dramatically underscores an emergent convergence of interests.

Equally, if Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had to travel to Tehran Thursday for a sensitive conversation, because phone lines have become so very insecure and Big Brothers might eavesdrop, it only shows how there are wheels within wheels.

Faced with such insecure surroundings, President Recep Erdogan’s strong points are three. First and foremost, his personal popularity among Turks is soaring high. The failed coup further legitimized his leadership.

Second, he has returned to consensual politics. Erdogan is making sure that Turkey’s two main opposition parties – Republican People’s Party (with ‘Kemalist’ lineage) and the Nationalist Movement Party (rooted in Turkish nationalism) – are party to the course correction on Turkey’s approach to the Syrian conflict, which is of course the core issue in Turkey’s crisis today.

Turkey’s rethink on Syria has the following elements: a) Turkey must re-establish ties with Syria; b) Turkey cannot allow the IS or Kurds to control the border regions with Syria; c) Turkey is a stakeholder in Syria’s unity and stability; d) Turkey must promote a government that ensures Syria will remain a secular country with genuine power-sharing that disallows domination by any ethnic group or region.

Of course, the core issue concerns the Kurdish problem in Syria. Turkey fears that a Kurdistan will be detrimental to its own stability. Arguably, this is the starting point of Turkey’s rethink on Syria.

Turkey obtained assurances from Washington in May that once the IS has been defeated in the northern Syrian city of Manjib, the Kurdish militia on the ground would be sent back to the eastern side of the Euphrates river from where they came. It is the ‘red line’ set by Ankara.

But the Kurds instead seem to take their campaign further westward as per their own master plan to bring all of northern Syria’s border regions under their control and establish a unified Kurdistan stretching from Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean coast.

And the US remains ambivalent. Last weekend, the US fighter aircraft actually warned Syrian jets against attacking Syrian Kurdish militia which is consolidating its grip on the oil-rich town of Hasakah.

Yet, the US depends on Incirlik air base in Turkey as staging post for its operations in northern Syria. Incirlik is notionally a NATO base. A string of top NATO commanders visited Turkey this month to stress the crucial importance of Incirlik to the alliance’s regional strategies. The latest is Gen Curtis Scapparotti, who took charge of the US European Command (EUCOM) in May (while also wearing the hat of the NATO Supreme Commander for Europe.) He was in Ankara on August 22.

Curiously, while the joint operation by the US Special Forces (with American air cover) with the Kurds in northern Syria comes under the supervision of the US Central Command, US forces stationed in Incirlik come under EUCOM. That is to say, Turkey is expected to stand by as a loyal NATO member and witness the Syrian Kurds spreading their wings with US support.

Turkey will not accept such an untenable situation to continue. Erodgan is exploring options. The bottom line is that Turkey simply cannot allow the emergence of a second Kurdistan on its border with Syria.

To be sure, this will be a key topic of discussion during the visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden to Turkey on August 24.

What merits attention will be how the Obama administration chooses to balance the two Turkish demands – extradition of Fetullah Gulen (Islamist preacher who is in Erdogan’s crosshairs) and the fulfilment of US commitment to send Syrian Kurds back to the east of the Euphrates.

Without doubt, the US expects Turkey to remain anchored to the western alliance. The recent Russian-Turkish rapprochement erodes the US’ containment strategy against Russia. Conversely, Turkish economy draws sustenance from its privileged access to western markets, technology and capital.

Evidently, Biden is holding more than one trump card. President Barack Obama’s decision to ‘upgrade’ the mission to Ankara – earlier plan was to dispatch secretary of state John Kerry – signals that a defining moment is at hand in Turkish-American relations.

Turkey indeed has to make some hard choices and, importantly, prioritize its expectations out of the Obama administration.

Interestingly, the chieftain of the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan Masood Barzani has come to Ankara on Tuesday and the influential speaker of the Iraqi parliament Salim Al-Jabouri will also be arriving on a visit on Wednesday by the time Biden reaches the Turkish capital.

Biden is the Obama administration’s point person on Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds. He is sure to pick up the threads of discussion where he left them during his visit to Baghdad and Erbil on April 28.

On the contrary, call it Plan B’ or whatever, but Turkey also has an option to network regionally with like-minded partners – Iran and Iraq, in particular – on the Kurdish problem. Iraq, Iran and Syria do have similar interests as Turkey in checking the rise of Kurdish nationalism.

Russia is a bit player but is also not lacking leverage over Kurds. In fact, Syrian Kurds keep an office in Moscow.

Ankara, pending Biden’s visit, has drawn up the operational plans to inject its own proxy groups into the northern Syrian town of Jarablus and practically cut off the westward march of Syrian Kurds. If push comes to shove, and a clash ensues between Syrian Kurds and Turkish proxy groups, of course, there is no need to second guess where Ankara’s loyalty would lie.

Turkey has widely publicized the Jarablus offensive. Some reports say Ankara even notified the Russians and the Americans in advance that Turkey may be left with no choice but to create new facts on the ground in northern Syria.

If only Biden ever visited Canakkale, he will not doubt for a moment Turkey’s grit to push through its Plan B in its supreme national interests even if it meant trampling on the best-laid American plans for Syria – or for Russia and Iran.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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