by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 7, Shawwal, 1433)
Turkish rulers seem to have miscalculated badly about events in Syria but there is little proof they are about to admit the error and make course correction.
As the rebellion in Syria loses momentum, one of the most deeply involved parties in the conflict — Turkey — emerges as the biggest loser of the war, barring of course the Syrian people themselves. From the beginning of insurrection, Turkey has sided with the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Asad. In order to achieve this, Turkey embraced a leading role in the plot that has been financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar with full political and intelligence backing of the US and its Western allies.
The perpetrators expected a quick victory similar to the one that occurred in Libya. The initial timeframe was expected to be about three months as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu anticipated and preparations were made accordingly. However, they miscalculated al-Asad’s resilience; based on this, international and domestic support rallied behind him. The rebellion peaked in mid-July. A major rebel assault was launched to take control of Damascus and Aleppo, the two most import cities in the country. Additionally, the assassination of top Syrian security officials on July 18 gave impetus to the rebel campaign as they paralyzed the highest decision-making body of the Syrian government.
During the rebel campaign Turkey took every possible military and political measure to support the rebels. In terms of military help, Turkey supplied shoulder held Stinger missiles to the rebels in an attempt to cripple the Syrian air force that provides significant advantage to government forces. Şefik Çirkin, MP of the National Movement Party, told the media that Turkey had supplied the Syrian rebels with Stinger missiles. As a result, the rebels shot down a Syrian MIG-21 aircraft, all the while filming the incident with a view to falshing its images on the internet.
Further, after the major rebel attack to take control of Damascus and Aleppo, the Syrian government changed its war strategy and redeployed its troops from the borders and rural areas to the cities. This enabled the Syrian government to reinforce troops in the urban centers to root out the rebels. The strategy has worked well and reinforcements have enabled government troops to regain control of most parts of Damascus and Aleppo that had fallen into rebel hands.
The Turkish military also staged several unscheduled large scale war-games on the Syrian border in August. The aim was to create the impression that Turkey was about to cross the border to attack Syria. This was intended to force the Syrian government to deploy troops that are fighting the rebels in the cities, to the border region. This would have eased pressure on the rebels. The Syrian government did not fall for this trap and instead concentrated on fighting the rebels in the cities.
Diplomatically, Turkey has been appalled at the US, Europe and UN failure to create a buffer zone inside Syria that would serve as a safe haven for the rebels. They soon realized the improbability of such a scenario, as it would have required partial occupation of Syria. Barack Obama facing presidential elections later this year has been reluctant to become militarily involved in Syria. The West and allies’ support to the rebels is limited to military, financial and intelligence aid. Turkey then pressed for a no-fly zone between Aleppo and the Turkish border. On the pretext of preventing Syrian refugee influx into Turkey that hopefully would prompt the UN Security Council to authorize military intervention, Turkish politicians called upon the international community to intervene in the conflict.
During funeral prayers for security forces that were killed by the Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK, Turkish Foreign Minister Davudoglu was asked about the high number of Syrian refugees. One estimate puts them at 75,000 in Turkey. He said “Yes, if the numbers exceed 100,000 this is no longer a refugee problem; it rather becomes mass migration. In 1991 when Saddam used chemical weapons, around 500,000 Kurdish brothers took shelter in Turkey and it attracted the world’s attention. This incident [therefore] cannot be considered as normal tension, instead it becomes a catastrophe so it requires UN involvement.”
Further, Turkey has also been trying to drag in the US to take direct military action against Syria and Turkish officials have held several meetings in this regard. However, in a statement last month, Obama made clear that the US would only consider attacking Syria if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against the rebels.
While there is no evidence that the Syrian government is planning to do any such thing, Turkey has already made claims that Syria has been using chemical weapons against the rebels. This is part of a ploy to force the US to attack Syria. Yenisafak, a newspaper considered a mouthpiece of the AKP government, took the lead and based on a video that was uploaded by Syrian rebels on the internet, claimed that the Syrian army has used chemical weapons. Past rebel claims have turned out to be equally false and there is little reason to believe this one either but in war, propaganda, no matter how false, is a handy tool.
The Syrian government’s quick recovery from the rebel offensive was a major blow to expectations in Ankara, as they thought the rebel campaign would surely topple the government. Since then Turkey has started to realize that despite its expectations the Syrian government might survive this upheaval and if so the consequences for Turkey would be devastating.
The most worrying consequence would be the Kurdish problem. Turkey is extremely worried about increasing Kurdish activities in the Northeastern region of Syria. Syrian security forces have pulled out of the Kurdish dominated region in the northeast and allowed local militia to take control. They also reached an agreement with the Kurds that make up 9% of the population, according to which they would defend the region against the rebels. Thus, the Syrian government managed to kill two birds with one stone. First, troops were relieved from the Kurdish region to fight the rebels in the cities and second, lack of government control has given the PKK greater opportunity to increase its presence in the region.
The PKK intensified its attacks against Turkish security forces and it has been one of the bloodiest summers in the 30-year history of the conflict. In August alone, 19 Turkish armed forces personnel and nine civilians were killed. The same month, the PKK also launched one of the most daring attacks in its history; they planned to overrun Semdinli, a district of the city of Hakkari. The attacks started on July 23 and continued till the end of August. According to the testimony of a captured PKK fighter, the aim was to use Semdinli as a test case and launching pad. If successful, this would boost morale of the Kurdish rebels elsewhere, enabling them to spread it to larger cities and create a situation in Turkey similar to that in Syria. However, adept use of indigenous Turkish UAVs foiled the plot and Turkish security forces managed to suppress the operation before the PKK could take control of the town.
Turkey is also extremely worried about the de facto autonomous rule of the Kurds as it might lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Thus, increasing casualties due to PKK attacks and the danger of an independent Kurdish state have put the AKP government under immense domestic pressure.
In order to prevent PKK assaults being launched from Syria and to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, Turkey has begun Operational Mechanism Meetings with US officials. According to the Turkish daily, Hurriyet, the first meeting took place in Ankara on August 23.
Turkey has played all its cards against Syria at the cost of straining relations with its other neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Turkish officials had until now firmly believed in the imminent collapse of the Syrian government. However, they are now beginning to realize that this is unlikely and that they might end up losing completely. Ankara now has to live with the mess it created along the Syrian border and the animosity of the Syrian government while aligning itself with such oppressive regimes as those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as serving the interests of imperialism and Zionism. These are hardly policies that serve the interests of Turkey or advance the cause of the broader Muslim Ummah.