Turkey seeks Hegemony in Syria – but will it risk further invasion?

Mohamad Tawam, Director of Arab London Center for Political Studies and Middle Eastern Affairs, has authored this article. The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the NCF: 

Turkey has supported armed groups opposed to the Syrian government since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, The perception of many is that the prime Turkish purpose in so doing has been the establishment of a new Ottoman Empire, with the Muslim Brotherhood as its centrepiece.

But Turkey’s attempt to enhance the authority of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has failed. Turkey has rowed back on her ambitions. Turkey now claims its interventions in Syria are defensive, specifically to deal with Syria’s Kurdish separatists, the existence of which, Turkey claims, is threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey.

However, this Turkish claim is not in line with Turkish conduct in the field. Observe Turkish field movements and the Turkish positions in Syria and you cannot help but conclude that Turkey has its own project in Syria and is looking for opportunities to implement it regardless of any position it is publicly committed to it.

Turkey still has ambitions to redraw the borders separating it from Iraq and Syria. The Turks would like to redraw the maps of the three countries so as to allow Turkey to annex the area from southern Mosul to al-Raqqa to the south of Aleppo and to Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. Turkey’s intention is to redistribute the population in this area and then establish a system of governance and control based on the concept of administrative decentralization and connect the region with the Turkish decision-makers in Ankara. Turkey is intensifying its intervention and is warning that it will not leave Syria until after the Syrian elections.

That is why we see the Turkish position fluctuating. Turkey’s real intention is merely to gain the time needed to implement its own project.

Which begs the question: Can Turkey implement its project and will it succeed in occupying the land to the North East of the Euphrates as it threatens?

There are three key players in the area Turkey now wishes to control: America and the Kurds and ISIS, whilst those affected by the Turkish project, other than of course the central Syrian state, are the Syrian people resident in that region, both Arabs and Kurds.

So what result can we expect of this Turkish project? And what are the ambitions of those affected?

We start with America, whose troops are currently still present on Syrian soil. Prior to President Trump’s recent hasty and perhaps rash announcement that he would withdraw those troops, they were implementing two goals for the eastern Euphrates region:

First they were supporting the Kurdish forces in their separatist project in Syria. Their stated strategy was that the presence of US troops and their support for the Kurds was largely to fight ISIS.

And the second strategic objective was to cut off the land link between the East, i.e. Iran, and the West, i.e. Syria and Lebanon.

However, this strategy undermined Turkish objectives, especially in the case of the Kurds, whose presence in Syria as a fighting force Turkey rejects, particularly on their borders and describes them as terrorists. This in part because Turkey views their  leadership as allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey and Turkey sees as a threat to its security.

Had President Trump not decided to withdraw his troops, this conflict conflict of interest might have meant a confrontation between the US and Turkish forces if Turkey had invaded the remaining area of Syria under Kurdish control.

And yet Turkey has been and remains an ally of America before and after the Kurds. If America finds that the Turkish presence will secure its strategic interests in Syria, it will not need to protect the Kurds in the entire region, a problem of itself because the USA’s widespread deployment in the Middle East requires the use of military bases in Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and US support for the Kurds will not help to reassure the Arab population in the Euphrates region who reject Kurdish rule.

Therefore, the most the United States can do in the face of the threat of Turkish invasion is to put pressure on the Turks to prevent it, and prevent its success, and then to protect the withdrawal of the Kurds to their densely populated heartlands, which do not exceed 10% of the area they now control with American support. This would stop America sliding into war with Turkey.

America could then humour both the Kurdish and Turkish parties and maintain its alliance relations with them.

As for the position of the Kurds in the face of the potential Turkish invasion, they do not the capacity to protect the areas they now control. To do so they would need a military force ten times the strength of the one they possess today. If the Kurds think that America will fight Turkey for them, they are labour under an illusion.

The call of some Kurds to the Syrian government to intervene in order to save them may be a mistake. The Kurds are committed to a separatist project in Syria and therefore it makes no sense for the Syrian government to intervene to protect their project.

As regards ISIS, Turkey will not risk entering the rest of the small areas controlled by ISIS in the east of Syria on the border with Iraq. So Turkey, which from the beginning worked in secret with ISIS in Syria, will ensure that ISIS will not be affected by any Turkish invasion.

Therefore, Turkey may see this moment as an opportunity to implement its threat to take control of much of Northern Syria based on its perception that the three parties that control East Euphrates do not have the will to confront Turkey.

If there is an obstacle that prevents or delays Turkey’s attack, it may be that the EU has asked Turkey not to carry out the threat. Or, as both Iran and Russia confirm, that the Turkish operation, if implemented, would be contrary to the understandings reached in Astana.

But the big surprise is the decision of the United States of America to withdraw all its military forces stationed in Syria in a decision announced by President Donald Trump in his twitter.

The withdrawal of US military from Syria is expected to end within a period of 60 to 100 days. This decision was taken by US President Donald Trump, after his telephone conversations with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which took place amid Turkey’s readiness to launch a third military operation In Syria targeting Kurdish insurgents in the east of the Euphrates.

Which means that Turkey may go on a “limited” invasion of the north-east of the Euphrates in a process that will not embarrass the American forces, which will be re-positioned to serve the Turkish targets, while the Kurds will find themselves alone in the field and will return to areas determined by the Americans.

But what is the position of the Syrian government in this regard?

The Syrian government sees every unsanctioned military presence on Syrian soil as an illegal presence, if that presence is not in response to a request from Syria or with its consent. Therefore, the four mentioned above are considered, for the Syrian government, to be an aggressor, an occupier, an outlaw, a terrorist or a separatist.

I believe that the Syrian government is sticking to its list of priorities to liberate Idlib from the armed terrorist groups with Al- Nusra Front first, and to monitor what is going on in the north-east. Turkey will find that its occupation of additional territory will not make it a partner or a friend of Syrian people in the future, and therefore the Turkish invasion would be a reckless leap without practical outcome.

Will Turkey do it? Let’s wait and see.

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