Days after its humiliating defeat by ISIS in the struggle for the strategically important Syrian town of Al-Bab, Turkey has called on the US led international anti ISIS coalition to provide its troops who are fighting ISIS near Al-Bab with air support.
The reason for this request is – as I discussed previously – that Al-Bab lies beyond the range of Turkish long range artillery located inside Turkey, whilst the Syrians publicly, and the Russians almost certainly privately, have warned the Turks against sending their air force there. The result is that the Turkish troops fighting ISIS near Al-Bab are critically short of artillery and air support, which was almost certainly an important reason for their recent defeat.
Turkish President Erdogan has however staked much of his prestige on capturing Al-Bab. Beyond that, he surely feels, as must many others in Turkey, that Turkey is honour bound to avenge its recent defeat by ISIS. Indeed Erdogan almost certainly sees the need to avenge Turkey’s defeat by ISIS as a personal matter.
Against that it seems that President Erdogan is unwilling to send Turkish artillery into Syria. Not only would the Russians, the Syrians and the Kurdish militia the YPG see that as a serious escalation, but given the extent of ISIS’s and the YPG’s operations in northern Syria, any Turkish artillery deployed in Syria would almost certainly need protection from Turkish ground troops, many of whom are conscripts. That might not prove popular in Turkey, where there is already concern about the extent to which Turkey is being sucked into the Syrian war.
The imperative political need to capture Al-Bab, combined with the reluctance to challenge the Syrians and the Russians in the air, or to confront ISIS and the YPG with Turkish conscripts on the ground, explains the request to the US. Whilst Turkey may fear the consequences of sending its own air force into action over Al-Bab, it probably calculates – almost certainly rightly – that the mighty US air force can operate there, and provide the Turkish army with the necessary air support, without having to fear interference from the Russians.
Whether the US will accede to this Turkish request is another matter.
Turkey’s attempt to capture Al-Bab is strongly opposed by the Syrian government and by the Kurdish militia the YPG.
The Syrian government undoubtedly sees Turkey’s attempt to capture Al-Bab as an attempt by the Turks to enlarge and consolidate the ‘safe zone’ they have been trying to create for their Jihadi proxies in northern Syria. In addition, capturing Al-Bab further secures the supply lines between Turkey and the Jihadis in Syria, including those now concentrated in Idlib, whilst Al-Bab itself is too close to Aleppo for comfort.
As for the Kurds, Turkey’s capture of Al-Bab would have the effect of keeping the areas of Syria under YPG control divided from each other, whilst opening the way for the Turkish army to advance on the YPG controlled town of Manbij.
The US will be unconcerned about any objections from the Syrian government. The Kurds are however another matter. Various US intelligence agencies having heavily invested in the YPG, which they have been trying to build up into a ‘third force’ to pit against both the Syrian government and ISIS. Calls for the US led anti ISIS coalition to provide air support to a Turkish military operation that is at least in part ultimately targeted at the YPG are bound therefore to encounter objections.
Beyond that there are also likely to be objections not just from within the US but also from some of the US’s European allies that the anti ISIS coalition of which they are also a part should not be diverted from its task of defeating ISIS in order to facilitate specific Turkish national goals.
Against that, with Russia inviting Turkey to co-sponsor a peace conference in Astana to settle the Syrian conflict, and with relations between Russia and Turkey appearing to grow ever closer, the US must calculate that simply turning down the Turkish request will make Turkey turn even more to Russia.
Irrespective of how the US responds to Turkey’s request, this episode once again highlights the essentially manipulative nature of President Erdogan’s foreign policy with respect to Russia.
Where following Russian warnings a more prudent politician in Erdogan’s position might have have backed off trying to capture Al-Bab, Erdogan has instead doubled down, ordering his army to capture Al-Bab, regardless of any concerns the Russians might have. Moreover he is prepared to call in the US to help him do it, in open defiance of the Russians, and in a way that he must know is bound to annoy them.
This probably reflects the deep feelings of resentment which President Erdogan by now almost certainly privately feels towards the Russians.
Turkey’s difficult economic situation, the hostility to him and to Turkey of much of the West, and the defeat of Turkey’s Jihadi proxies in Aleppo, means that Erdogan probably feels that he has no real choice for the moment but to draw closer to Russia. However doing so is ultimately incompatible with his anti-Assad policy in Syria, to which he remains personally deeply committed, and which he is not prepared to sacrifice. Moreover there are signs that his large Islamist base within Turkey feels the same way.
Calling in the Americans is for Erdogan and for Turkey almost certainly not just a way of solving their immediate problems in Al-Bab, but is also a way of showing to the Russians that Turkey remains independent of them, and that if the Russians push Turkey too far, it have other options.