Many Syrians were worried that Turkey’s large scale operation in Idlib would be a repeat of the disastrous Operation Euphrates Shield, which brought considerable instability to Syria at a time when many parts of western Syria were still contending with large-scale onslaughts from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, including Turkish backed jihadists who preferred to fly under the ever fluid FSA banner.
However, while Syria’s outright disdain for Turkey is more than understandable, as a friend of Syria, I was pleased to say that the Turkey of Autumn 2017 had vastly different regional goals and diametrically different geo-strategic partners and corresponding priorities, than the Turkey of the Summer of 2016.
The rapidity of Turkey’s pivot has left many thinking that no country can change the trajectory of its goals so much–so soon. But the combination of US/EU hostility towards Turkey and the very economic and security real incentives offered by Russia, Iran and China, has indeed forced a Turkish pivot which I contend is sincere. This pivot is based on self-interest, which is often the most reliable motivating factor for both geo-political as well as personal realignments.
When Turkey announced its “troop surge” in Idlib, it immediately differed from Euphrates Shield, insofar as while Euphrates Shield was totally illegal according to international law, Turkey’s present movements in Idlib are widely thought to be sanctioned by the latest Astana Agreement which was co-signed by Russia and Iran (two long term allies of Syria). Damascus itself was present at the signing of the agreement to establish a largely Turkish policed “de-escalation zone”. While Syria publicly stated that Turkey has no right to be in the country, this is now a question of how one interprets Turkey’s mandate under the Astana Agreement. Of course, Syria has the ultimate legal right to ask any country to leave its territory at anytime. But because of the nature of Astana, what was once a black and white question of Turkey’s illegal presence in Syria, is now something of a grey area, one which Russia is almost certainly managing behind the scenes, in order to avoid any profound crises.
Whatever one’s views on Turkey and President Erdogan, one must acknowledge that Turkey’s present operations in northern Syria are fundamentally different than previous incursions. Whereas in Euphrates Shield, Erdogan was after regime change in Damascus, with an added bonus of containing Kurdish ethno-nationalists in Syria, today’s operations are entirely about not only containing, but also sending a direct warning to Syrian Kurds. The warning was made loud and clear by President Erdogan when he claimed that the Idlib operation was more or less finished after a few shorts weeks. Instead, Turkey will now turn its attention to Afrin, a hot bed of Kurdish militants or as many in both Syria and Turkey would say, terrorists. Another major difference between today’s Turkish operations and Euphrates Shield is that while during Euphrates Shield, Erdogan wanted the US to do more to bolster Sunni supremacist regime change in Syria, now, Erdogan admonishes the US for backing what Ankara considers to be Kurdish terrorists.
During a detailed speech before his AK Party loyalists, Erdogan stated,
“The Afrin issue lay ahead of us. We want everyone to know this. We will not make any concessions. We can come suddenly at night. We can suddenly hit at night”.
This is as much of a warning to Kurdish YPG militants as it is to the United States, a country very much included in Erdogan’s “everyone” category.
He continued, referencing the infamous images of Kurdish militants standing beside a giant photo of terrorist PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, in the smouldering city of Raqqa that has been effectively wiped off the map after a US carpet bombing campaign. Erdogan further slammed the US for what he felt were unsatisfactory answers to the now overt issue of a YPG/PKK alliance.
“They (the US) say ‘It’s not PKK.’ How will America explain that the giant posters of the secessionist terrorists organisation are hanging in Raqqa? We did not believe when it was spoken, but it’s on TV screens and photos”.
Turning to the unsatisfactory response from the US about how it does not consider Ocalan “worthy of comment”, Erdogan stated,
“What kind of remark is that? Does this suit a country like you? Well, you have been the cradle of democracy”.
Erodgan then stated that while the US is lax about PKK terrorism, it is “only bold enough to issue arrest warrants for my 13 security guards, most of whom have never seen America before”.
This is a reference to altercations between Erdogan’s private security contingent, who got into scuffles with agitators in the US during Erdogan’s recent visit to Washington.
Beyond Afrin, new information has emerged that Turkey intends to capture the Kurdish militant hotbed of Manbij. Al-Masdar reports that leaflets have been distributed to Turkish proxy fighters in Aleppo saying that Manbij will be taken, “no matter what the cost is”.
Turkey has always stated that it will not tolerate any Kurdish statelet forming on its borders. In continually backing Kurdish proxies, the US has called Erdogan’s bluff, only to find out that he is entirely serious.
This helps explain why Iraqi Kurds who just days ago called for hard reprisals against the “war” which they claimed Iraqi forces waged by restoring control over northern Iraq, have today engaged in a profound climb-down.
Today, an entirely different tone has been offered by the Kurdish regime in Iraq, one which contrasts sharply with earlier calls for “revenge” on both Iraqi and so-called Iranian forces in the country. According to a statement from the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil,
“The dangerous situation and tension that faces Iraq and Kurdistan forces all of us to live up to the historical responsibility and to not allow the situation to lead to further war and confrontation between the Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga.
The aggression and the confrontation between the Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga since October 16, 2017 has caused damage to both sides. It may also result in continued bloodshed and result in cutting the social relations between the Iraqi components.
It is a fact that a war between the two sides will not have a winner. It will instead lead both sides to great damages in all aspects of life. That is why, from the perspective of our responsibility towards the people of Kurdistan and Iraq, we propose the following to the government of Iraq, the Iraqi public opinion, and to the world:
The immediate cessation of fighting and every kind of military operations in the Kurdistan Region.
Freezing the outcome of the referendum that was held in the Iraqi Kurdistan.
Beginning an open dialogue between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government on the basis of the Iraqi constitution”.
This statement effectively gives Baghdad everything it has asked for. Baghdad’s demands which were always legal and reasonable, were previously rejected by Iraqi Kurds, but today’s about-face demonstrates a de-facto surrender wherein Kurds admit that secession is unrealistic and that they will work with Iraq to return to the status quo of autonomy in constitutionally defined regions.
While Iraqi Kurds have traditionally had better relations (in recent decades) with Turkey than their Syrian counterparts, Turkey threatened to cut off all economic activity in and out of Iraq’s Kurdish regions while refusing to rule out military intervention.
The message from Turkey was loud and clear. It boiled down to the fact that neither the US nor Israel could resupply Iraqi Kurds, even if such a will existed. Increasingly, Kurds have found that such a will did not exist in any meaningful way and instead acquiesced to Iraq’s reasonable demands rather than face a Turkish military onslaught.
In Syria, where the Kurdish YPG has known links to the PKK, links which are now being openly flaunted, things are going to be much more tense. While the US has launched proxy wars in Syria and Iraq for years, now America’s own proxies are in the sights of the Turkish army. It remains to be seen how much the US is willing to fight for their own proxies. If they are in fact willing to do so, it would be an open confrontation with Turkey, a country which is still technically a member of NATO.