The Syrian conflict appears on Turkey’s border but beyond Turkish containment and entirely out of Turkish control.
Turkey has played a significant but not determining role in Syria’s war, with its leader – prime minister at the start of Syria’s war, now president – Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-SAssad and retaining that demand throughout the development and degeneration of Syria’s conflict.
But beyond that, as Assad remains unremoved, Turkish actions and words have proven various, flexible and of inconsistent effectiveness.
Turkey has supported a number of armed opposition groups ranged against Assad. During the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS), Turkish sponsored rebels in Operation Euphrates Shield took much territory from the Islamic State. Turkey-backed rebel fighters were only prevented from marching on its de facto capital of Raqqa by the decision of the United States-dominated global coalition to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their stead.
Turkey has made its own moves against the SDF and its primary constituent force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), pressuring the United States to allow Turkish allies to dominate the strategic town of Manbij and successfully pushing Kurdish troops from the Afrin canton in an operation titled Olive Branch last year.
When the Assad regime consolidated its position, taking the final rebel holdouts in Syria’s south, Turkey entrenched itself in Syria’s north, continuing to organise a rebel force it terms the Syrian National Army and supporting other, more Islamist factions, such as the Syrian Liberation Front (JTS), in the densely populated portion of Syria, in Idlib and Hama, which are not occupied by the regime or the SDF.
The regime and its opponents, notably including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the jihadist group variously linked to al-Qaeda, agreed to a ceasefire last year that was only sporadically successful and is in the process of bloodily breaking down.
Turkey has solidified its presence in Idlib, but not without reversals. HTS effectively defeated JTS earlier this year, monopolising the political control of much of Idlib. And Turkish forces and their rebel allies are under fire from the regime and its allies and unable to control the situation.
Turkey has once more resorted to rhetoric. Its previous calls for Assad to step down or to be defeated have failed; so, in a sense, did Erdogan’s personal appeal for the world to save Idlib when a massacre looked likely last year – the massacre merely having been postponed.
Now Turkey blames the Assad regime for allowing Russian atrocities. And, separately though in a connected spirit, Turkey has threatened retaliation if the regime continued to attack Turkish observation posts in Idlib and Hama. In a press conference June 14, Erdogan said: ‘Turkey will not remain silent if the Syrian regime continues to attack observation points in Idlib”.
The nature of that retaliation remains open to speculation and likely would not, if it happened, amount to very much. On June 16, according to rebel and opposition news sources, Turkish forces apparently exchanged artillery and mortar fire with regime forces in west Hama in response, reportedly, to a regime attack.
This exchange does not indicate much except irresolution and an inability to achieve Turkey’s stated and unstated aims.
In the same press conference, Erdogan also suggested that more effort could be made on Turkey’s part to evict the YPG from Manbij and lamented the lack of American action, in response to Turkey’s demands and requests, to decrease YPG influence in the area.
Turkish rallying cries for the defence of Idlib and Erdogan’s condemnation of Russian and regime war crimes are motivated as much by national concerns as by internationalism. The war is on Turkey’s border and it cannot ignore it. Turkish interventions in Syria are designed separately to control the border and prevent the extensive movement of refugees into and through Turkey and to protect Turkey from the potential threat of Kurdish terrorism, which, in Erdogan’s mind, is represented by allowing the YPG and its SDF banner a toehold in Syria’s north-east.
As things become more desperate in the Idlib pocket, some Syrian activists talk of threatening a mass migration into Turkey to prompt Turkish and other national leaders to take their situation seriously. Turkey’s official policy is to protect Syrians from Assad and secure its Syrian border.
But when this is taken with actions by Turkish local government – for example in Gazipasa, Antalya, which this month tried to stop Syrians using public amenities, such as beaches, as a deterrence – it seems clear that, of the two, the former merits less concern and less effort than the latter.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.