international analysis and commentary

Turkey’s dangerous game in Syria, between the Damascus regime and the return of ISIS

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It was not in Turkey where Kardeşliğin sınır tanımaz, or “brotherhood knows no borders”, was written across a wall last year. It was in A’zaz, a Syrian city near the Turkish border, where the wall stood between the Turkish flag and that of the Syrian opposition.

The Turkish offensive in northern Syria, launched on October 9 and code-named “Operation Peace Spring”, could be defined as a war within a war. Its scope is to eliminate the Kurdish forces affiliated with the PKK, a group the Turkish government perceives as terrorist. The matter was soon at the center of an intricate geopolitical framework as the Kurdish militias were, and still are, a main ally of the US-led international coalition against ISIS.

For his part, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced Turkey’s decision to “pause” the military offensive in northern Syria for five days starting on October 17, while maintaining that the decision does not mean the conclusion of the operation. In a press conference held that same day, Cavusoglu declared, “In agreement with the US, Turkey will allow Kurdish defense units to retreat from the safe zone north of Syria.” The Turkish Foreign Minister was adamant in affirming that the Turkish military offensive had achieved its objectives in the north of Syria while maintaining that his country’s strategic aim was to “create a 32-kilometer-deep safe zone inside Syria.” The ceasefire was reached on October 17 and accepted by the Kurdish counterpart, but was violated the next day by the Turkish forces that bombed Ras al-‘Ayn on the Syrian border.

 

The current Turkish offensive is only the tip of the iceberg under which hides a history of ambition to expand influence in the region. It stems from the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, the last Caliphate in the history of Sunni Islam, which up until 1922 included most of the current Near East states, one of which is Syria.

The Ottoman Empire in 1914

 

For a better understanding of the strategic significance of the Turkish offensive in northern Syria, it is important to go back to August 30, 2018 when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem declared, “The government’s priority now is to free Idlib.” Announced by the regime, the statement signaled the launch of an offensive to cleanse the city from all anti-government formations. Following Muallem’s statement, Turkey deployed around 1,300 troops to Idlib to monitor a previously reached agreement to end the fighting. Turkey’s main concern was once again the flow of a new wave of refugees toward its borders after it had received over three million Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war.

The situation in Syria and the Idlib province in August 2018

 

More than a year later, the current Turkish offensive could be seen as an evolution of its initiative in Idlib but with political and military objectives that are better defined. On September 17, 2018 Russia and Turkey reached an agreement in Sochi to create a demilitarized buffer zone around Idlib in an effort to separate government and rebel forces. Behind “Operation Peace Spring” lies a clear Turkish intention to consolidate and formalize its long stay in northern Syria not only to contain the Kurds but also to limit the infiltration of terrorists and support anti-Assad Syrian opposition groups.

An Agence France Presse journalistic investigation conducted in the Syrian border city of A’zaz last year revealed that Turkey had already begun exploiting the authority vacuum in those areas by introducing school books and road signs in the Turkish language. Turkey also imposed its control over post offices, currency exchange, and electricity.

Activists have accused Turkey of “Turkification” in Afrin

 

With the eruption of the Syrian revolution against Assad’s regime in 2011, Turkey began to help the Syrian armed opposition both politically and militarily, soon becoming its main supporter. In 2016, Turkish forces launched the first military offensive in Syria under the pretense of fighting ISIS, but the aim was really to target Kurdish formations. It was during that period that Turkish forces began to impose their control in some Syrian border cities where today they call for a safe zone. Last August, Turkey threatened to occupy that Syrian territory, and today it is seeing that threat through.

 

Turkey has multiple political, economic, geopolitical, and security interests. Controlling a strip of land along its border keeps the Kurdish block under control, if not completely annihilating it, even though the defeat of ISIS has gained the Kurds favor with the international community.

Furthermore, by reinforcing its support for the Syrian armed opposition, Turkey could, as never before, effectively determine a regime change in Damascus, thereby triggering a “new” clash between Washington and Moscow. For its part, the Damascus regime could once again play the ISIS scarecrow card to guarantee its stay.

The last scenario would be the most insidious as it entails the return of a more violent ISIS threat, a factor deemed useful to several players involved in this geopolitical game.