Sunday July 24, 2022

Erdogan continues to face flak over Syria moves

Erdogan continues to face flak over Syria moves

A child stares at a US soldier patrolling a village in the countryside of the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, near the Turkish border on Saturday. Agence France-Presse

Since May Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack Kurdish forces in northern Syria and has mobilised both Turkish troops and surrogate Syrian militiamen near the border. However, there are compelling reasons why Erdogan should drop this idea although Turkey’s army and allied Syrian forces have occupied strategic enclaves of Syrian territory over the past six years.

During last week’s Tehran summit both Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Russian President Vladimir Putin via an aide expressed opposition to a Turkish military offensive to capture the Syrian towns of Kobane, Manbij and Tel Rifa’at. This would be the fourth such ope- ration mounted by Turkey to evict Syrian Kurdish fighters from the border area and establish a 30- kilometre “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the frontier. The US, which has financed, trained and armed the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to fight Daesh, has also warned Erdogan against a fourth military incursion, land grab and ethnic cleansing. US President Joe Biden is not willing to give Erdogan a greenlight as did his predecessor Donald Trump in 2019.

The Syrian army has reinforced units, particularly near Manbij, while pro-Iranian militias have also moved to the border area and Russia has deployed aircraft at Qamishli’s airport in the northeast Syrian province of Hasaka. The US contingent, based in Kurdish-controlled portions of Deir al-Zor province also has air power to defend the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Washington’s chief asset in Syria. A Turkish offensive could compel the US to join forces with Syria, Iran, and Russia, regional antagonists of the US, to counter a Turkish offensive. Well aware of this possibility, Erdogan has complained about the US alliance with the Syrian Kurds, who are being used to prevent the Syrian government from regaining 25 per cent of the country’s territory in the northeast and east.

Putting Kobani on the agenda is a major miscalculation for the town has great signifi- cance for the anti-Daesh camp led by the US. The Syrian Kurds demonstrated their military potential in 2014 when they drove Daesh out of Kobani, attracting the admiration of many in the international community and the US which soon adopted the Kurdish fighters as ground forces in the campaign against Daesh and the Syrian government.

Last Wednesday’s Turkish army shelling of a tourist resort in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq that that killed nine Iraqi Arab civilians and wounded more than 20, the majority women and children, has alerted Iraqi, Arab, and international opinion to the dangers posed by Ankara’s cross-border campaign against Kurds accused by Turkey of being affiliated with its secessionist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). This attack has prompted Iraqi Kurds and Arabs to demand Turkish withdrawal of 5,000-10,000 troops based in an archipelago of military bases inside Iraqi territory and called for an end to attacks from across the border on the PKK which revolted against the Turkish government in 1984 after decades of anti-Kurd discrimination and persecution.

Since its first attack on northern Syria in Turkey has relied on surrogate radical militants grouped in the so-called “Syrian National Army.” However, these forces are neither “national” nor an “army.” They belong to competing fundamentalist factions and do not operate under a single command. Furthermore, they conduct turf wars in areas where Turkey has imposed its “control” and ethnically cleansed abuse civilians living there.

Another Turkish advance into northern Syria would not be welcomed by Arab countries which have reestablished relations with the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad. These include the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, and Oman as well as Egypt, Algeria, Kuwait and others which did not close their missions to demonstrate opposition against the government’s crackdown on protesters in 2011 and prosecution of the war that followed.

By mounting a fresh invasion of Syria, Erdogan would, in particular, alienate the very leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia whom he has courted over the past few months. He has also attempted to reduce tensions with Egypt by ending his sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is regarded as a “terrorist” organisation by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A Turkish military operation would be counterproductive as it would anger Iran, Russia, and the US and could prompt the US-backed Kurds to make peace with Damascus – which is precisely what Russia and Iran want but not Washington which continues to brutally sanction and isolate Syria by curtailing supplies of food and medicine to the country’s population and preventing re- construction in violation of international law which prohibits “collective punishment” of civilians in response to actions by their rulers.

The time is hardly right for Erdogan to invade Syria. The US and Europe are fully occupied by Russia’s war in Ukraine which they claim is a crusade to re-establish the rule of law and defend democracy. This being the case, it would be very difficult for the West to apply double standards when dealing with an unwelcome Turkish invasion of Syria. Therefore, Erdogan cannot hope to secure understanding and tolerance from the West or the Arabs who are not supportive of the West’s involvement in Ukraine.

Erdogan has not only stepped up domestic and Iraqi military operations against the PKK but has touted his plan to drive Syrian Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border zone. His aim is to appeal to the Turkish nationalist and ultra-nationalist vote ahead of the June 2023 elections for president, parliament and local authorities.

Erdogan has lost the confidence and backing of 51 per cent of Turkish voters due to mismanagement, corruption, policies which have precipitated economic melt-down, a poor response to the COVID pandemic, and widespread Turkish resentment over the presence of 3.5 million Syrian refugees. According to MetroPoll’s monthly survey for June, his approval rating has fallen to 44.2 per cent. While he is likely to win another term, especially since the divided opposition cannot agree on a strong candidate, his Justice and Development Party is certain to lose seats in the legislature.

Turkey began its anti-Kurd operations in Syria in August 2016 with an offensive which led to the Turkish occupation of al-Bab, Jarablus and Dabiq but left Manbij under Kurdish and Syrian government control. In 2018, Turkey invaded the Kurdish-majority district of Afrin in Aleppo province, driving out Kurdish fighters and ethnically cleansing 300,000 Kurdish civilians.

In 2019, Turkish army forces gained control of Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and other towns and dozens of villages in an operation greenlighted by Donald Trump who pulled out some but not all US troops.

During this time Turkey has gained considerable control over the north-western province of Idlib by establishing military bases and posts in the province and cooperating with al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahiri al-Sham which has become the dominant radical group.

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