Turkey gets toehold on Syrian territory, finally

M.K. Bhadrakumar November 21, 2015 4:47 AM (UTC+8)
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The cloud of uncertainty is lifting about any new directions of Turkish policies on Syria following the parliamentary elections three weeks ago, which led to a great political consolidation by President Recep Erdogan. The policies will run in the old directions – regime change in Syria – as per Erdogan’s compass, which was set four years ago, but they will be vastly more visible in the ‘kinetics’.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu

That is the assessment one can make regarding the extraordinary demarche made by Turkey on Friday threatening Russia with “serious consequences” unless the latter ended this military operation (air strikes) “as early as possible” in northern Syria close to the Turkish border inhabited by the Turkmen tribes. Importantly, the Turkish threat was generic in character and not specific to any particular incident.

The Turkish diplomacy has a long tradition running through centuries and the timing of the demarche cannot be coincidental. Moscow reports had disclosed just the previous day, Thursday, that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will be traveling to Turkey on November 25 to discuss Syria.

An easy explanation is possible that Turkey decided to set the agenda for Lavrov’s talks on coming Wednesday that would devolve upon the parameters of the Russian operations in northern Syria that will not cross Turkey’s ‘red lines’. The exceptionally strong words used by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu regarding the “bloody and barbarian” Syrian regime leaves very little to the imagination as to how Erdogan views the prospect of Assad’s future role. The last known Turkish stance is that Erdogan can tolerate Assad for a maximum period of six months during the transition.

However, it is wrong to conclude that the Turkish demarche is a mere tactical ploy. There is also the backdrop of the robust Turkish push for establishing a ‘no-fly zone’ in northern Syria to be kept in view. The demarche is linked to a live broadcast by Erdogan on Wednesday where he underscored that the creation of ‘no-fly’ and ‘safe’ zones is crucial to resolving the Syrian crisis.

The reports from Turkey through the one-week period had indicated that there is a joint Turkish-American military effort under way to fasten the border with Syria. Washington has been cagey about admitting the scale of involvement of the US military, but did not deny the Turkish media reports conclusively, either.

At any rate, the strategic ambiguity has just ended. The ‘breaking news’ from Ankara says Syrian opposition group Al-Sultan Murad Brigades “supported by Turkish and US war planes took control of two Turkmen towns in northern Syria” early Saturday. The reports say six Turkish F-16 aircraft, four US F-15 fighter jets and an American AC-130 took part in the operation along with three drones.

The Turkish security sources have been quoted as claiming that the joint Turkish-American move is the “first step for the creation of a Daesh-free zone in northern Syria (which) will further encourage the opposition forces to fight Daesh terror and help ensure Turkey’s border security”.

In strategic terms, a defining moment has been reached in the Syrian conflict – the “first step” in the creation of a swathe of land in northern Syria that will be out of bounds for military operations by Syrian government forces, Russian aircraft, or various militia groups such as Hezbollah who are fighting on the side of the Syrian regime.

Put differently, the race for Aleppo has begun. The point is, the Turkish-American operation comes at a time when with Russian air cover, Syrian government forces are struggling to retake Aleppo, which has been under the control of opposition groups for two years. To be sure, the Turkish demarche on Friday threatening Russia with “serious consequences” falls in perspective.

The US role in this daring Turkish enterprise remains hidden from view. Senior US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, are credited with privately expressing views supportive of the Turkish proposal on free-trade zone, and leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has openly backed the idea, but President Barack Obama has so far preferred to stand in the shade with an ambivalence that appeared to weigh against the ‘no-fly zone’.

But if the latest reports coming from Turkey are to be believed, Obama has given the green signal, finally, for direct American military participation in creating the ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria. Indeed, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Turkey last week, Obama and Erdogan had the opportunity for holding in-depth discussions on Syria.

Erdogan’s hard-hitting remarks on Wednesday regarding ‘safe’ zones in northern Syria – and the Turkish demarche on Friday with Moscow – could only have been on the basis of the certainty that Obama is willing to hold his hands.

Erdogan is also cashing in on the refugee crisis plaguing Europe and the US. In the downstream of the terrorist strikes in Paris, there is widespread panic in the West that giving asylum to refugees from the Muslim world will be tantamount to opening the doors to terrorists.

An opinion is building up in the US too against Obama’s plan to give asylum to a few thousand Syrian refugees. The growing preference is that if conditions are made available for the displaced people of Syria to stay put in ‘safe zones’ on Syrian soil, they have no reason to seek asylum abroad.

The Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who recently compared the Obama administration’s proposal to vet the Syrian refugees to handling a “rabid dog”, was probably tapping into the groundswell of opinion in the US when he said on Friday, “I think it actually makes a lot more sense and we can provide them with humanitarian support… You’re not going to get one faction or another in control (in Syria) without a great deal of strife, but you might be able to form a coalition government, at which time you may be able to repopulate the area (and) repatriate the citizens there.”

The European Union too is pressing Turkey to somehow stop the flow of refugees heading for Europe. The entire Schengen visa system, a flag carrier of the European project, is breaking down. The EU has offered Turkey 3 billion euros as incentive for not encouraging the Syrian refugees to move on to the greener pastures of Europe.

Suffice it to say, Erdogan has been shrewd enough to assess that the hour has come to put into implementation the creation of a ‘no-fly’ and ‘safe’ zone on Syrian soil. Of course, while doing so, Turkey will be pursuing grand ambitions, including territorial ambitions, that go far beyond humanitarian considerations. But that lies in the womb of time.

For the present, Turkey sees the ‘Balkanization’ of Syria to be inevitable, and as happens in such situations, the early bird catches the worm. Turkey is moving in to press its historic claim to the inheritance that it was unjustly denied when imperial Britain unilaterally apportioned the lands of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire in the Levant and Mesopotamia.

Erdogan will watch how Moscow reacts. The Turks have great mastery in ‘salami tactics’. Erdogan gets an opportunity to sit down with President Vladimir Putin in late December when the Turkish-Russian High-Level Council is due to meet in the southern Russian city of Kazan.

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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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