Erdogan compounds dilemma in Syria

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Jumada' al-Ula' 21, 1437 2016-03-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 1, Jumada' al-Ula', 1437)

“These are the most difficult times in our recent history, even in the history of our Republic.” This was former president Abdullah Gul’s comment about the February 17 car bombing in the heart of Ankara. In a sophisticated attack, a suicide bomber drove his explosive laden car into three buses carrying military officers. The attack destroyed the buses killing 21 people, 20 of them middle and high-ranking military officers.

This was the single most deadly attack against the Turkish army in recent history. On the same day, the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targeted a military vehicle using a roadside bomb in the troubled eastern region of the country and killed six more members of the army, thus making it a very costly day for the military. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan immediately blamed the Kurdish armed groups, the PKK and PYG and vowed harsh retaliation. The security forces quickly named the suicide bomber saying he was a Syrian Kurd, and had recently entered Turkey as a refugee. Using the bomber’s alleged identity made it easy for the government to blame the PKK and PYG as well as its political wing, the PYD, but both groups denied any involvement in the attack.

Aside from the unusually high death toll, the attack might have been part of the vicious conflict between the separatist Kurds and Turkey, but in light of recent developments in Syria, it should rather be considered a brute manifestation of the crisis that Turkey is facing. Since Russia launched air strikes against the terrorists in Syria on September 20, 2015, the Syrian army and its allies have made steady progress by regaining territory from the terrorists. Most of Syria’s northern borders with Turkey have been sealed. By liberating the towns of Nubl and Zahra, Syrian forces have cut off the vital supply line for terrorists from Turkey to Aleppo. This will make it easier for Syrian forces to besiege the country’s largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo, and reclaim it from the clutches of the terrorists. Further, Latakia region has been liberated and there have been significant Syrian army advances in other ISIS-held areas as well.

Russia’s direct involvement in the conflict has provided much-needed impetus for the Syrian government and is helping to foil the joint Saudi-Turkish plot to topple the government of President Bashar al-Asad. Both the Saudis and Turks have invested heavily in toppling the Syrian government and have been desperately trying to avoid a scenario in which al-Asad would survive and thus emerge victorious. However, despite the combined efforts of the two countries in terms of providing logistical support, training, manpower, funding, and military hardware, these have proved futile in the face of strong resistance and willpower of the Syrian army and its allies.

Against immense odds, the Syrian forces’ victory is on the horizon. At the current stage of the war, there is a good possibility that Syrian government forces will liberate Aleppo and end the bloody conflict in the not too distant future. If this happens it would be a clear failure of the foreign-backed terrorists together with their patrons Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It will also signal the defeat of imperialists and Zionists.

In such a scenario, Saudi Arabia’s influence will further diminish in the Muslim East (aka the Middle East) and it will be another occasion in which they will lose ground to Islamic Iran and the axis of resistance. However, Turkey will be the main loser. There are many reasons for this. First, Erdogan’s ambition to revive the Ottoman Sultanate will have to be trashed completely. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been trying to expand its influence through backing the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia. There is little hope of success in Egypt and Tunisia and now if Syria is lost — as it looks increasingly likely — Erdogan’s dream of becoming the chief executive of the new Ottoman Sultanate will be over, perhaps permanently. The idea was quite preposterous to begin with but it is about to be dealt a severe blow.

The second and perhaps more important point from Ankara’s point of view is that Turkey will have to deal with the growing influence of Kurdish nationalists. The Kurds in Turkey, the largest concentration of Kurds in any of the countries they are scattered in, have been pressing for an independent Kurdish state. Their aim is to merge the Kurdish territories in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Thanks to US political and military support and Russian air support, the nationalist Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has gained vast territory in the Syrian-Turkish border area.

This development is of very serious concern to Turkey as it is almost certain that the PYD will eventually try to declare independence and the Kurds that are residing on the other side of the border in Turkey, will follow suit by joining their Syrian brothers. This is a nightmare scenario for Ankara and in order to avoid it they are ready to do everything possible. One of the options, perhaps the craziest, is to militarily intervene in Syria. The Turks and Saudis have been talking about a joint military intervention into Syria to prevent the collapse of Aleppo and to prevent further Kurdish gains in the Syria-Turkish border region.

This disastrous scenario from Turkey’s perspectives has given rise to Ankara’s war mongering rhetoric but it seems Erdogan’s options are limited. Aside from the Saudis, no other country is supporting Turkey’s intervention in Syria. Even NATO member countries have made clear they will not fight Erodgan’s war. Considering the Saudis’ total failure in Yemen, it is highly questionable whether the Saudis have the necessary skills to undertake such a massive operation and be successful.

The Turkish army has the necessary skills and motivation to stage a military incursion into Syria but it lacks domestic and international support. The AKP is struggling even at home to explain why it embarked on the policy of toppling the Syrian government in the first place. In the absence of any other option, the Turkish army is now trying to stop PYG advances against the takfiri terrorists by using artillery fire and launching endless barrages of threats.

There is, however, little indication the Kurds are scared of Turkish threats. Conversely, the fact that the suicide bomber who attacked Ankara may have come from Kurdish held areas gives rise to speculation that the attack may have had the tacit approval of the PYD to send a message to Erdogan about the consequences of direct conflict with the PYG. It may have been a signal of what they are capable of doing. It is possible that when former president Abdullah Gul noted the gravity of situation, he was referring not merely to the suicide bombing but the serious crisis Erdogan has brought upon Turkey itself.

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