The Turkish Armed Forces’ operation to Jarablus, carried out with its allies within the Free Syrian Army, represents a shift from Turkey’s indirect to direct involvement in the Syrian civil war.
To discuss the characteristics of this move and possible future developments, we must first take a look at the radical change in Turkey’s regional policy. After the onset of the Arab uprisings, Turkey had strived to become a major player in the region with a zeal going way beyond its capacity, and in cooperation with local radical Islamist actors. Syria was one of the countries where this policy was put into practice. Turkey attempted to bring about a regime change together with its Islamist allies on the ground, yet failed bitterly. Not only did the regime stay in place, but also the Syrian Kurds led by PYD strengthened their military and political organization to bring a large swathe of Northern Syria under control. When the Turkish army downed a Russian SU-24 warplane in Fall 2015, this political debacle reached its nadir as Turkey came to the verge of open conflict with a global political force.
Eventually, Turkey had to make the inevitable U-turn in its policy. Prime Minister Davutoğlu was dismissed, and Turkey initiated a detente with Russia and Israel, reestablishing political ties. This was followed by announcements that Turkey would not object to Assad’s presence at the beginning of the transitional period. Arab media outlets suggested that Ankara was engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Damascus. The major reasons underlying this policy change were as follows: The Kurdish movement established the Syrian Democratic Forces to receive tactical support from the USA against ISIS, making crucial military, political and diplomatic gains; Turkey’s local allies turned out to be very weak; Turkey’s sectarian policy turned its long-lasting rivalry with Iran into hostility and triggered regional turmoil; although Turkey was shielding ISIS against the Kurds, ISIS became a huge threat within Turkey; and finally, Turkey’s prestige was badly damaged for not taking any action against ISIS and other Salafi and jihadist groups despite severe US pressure.
In the light of the reasons listed above, we may say that Turkey’s Jarablus operation serves four main objectives: First of all, Turkey is establishing border security by pushing ISIS away from the border. Even in court documents, it was stated that Turkey was giving tactical support to ISIS along the border, with the motto “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Yet this problematic relationship turned into hostility, and Turkey started to make efforts to limit the intentionally created porosity of its Syrian border. Secondly, Turkey is trying to turn over a new leaf and shed its international pro-jihadist image by organizing a joint operation with the USA against ISIS, and mending their ties damaged by the differences in Syrian policy. The third objective is to prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurdish movement to unite their cantons and establish an entity in Northern Syria. The fourth motive is to reach an agreement with Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime, which feel threatened by the creation of a Kurdish entity supported by the USA. Establishing a buffer zone along the Azaz-Jarablus line under control of Syrian opposition groups -which include numerous jihadist elements- could serve the purposes listed above. Various Syrian opposition groups trying to capture this area before had been supported by Turkish artillery fire. Nevertheless, the latter had failed to deliver, due to their limited military capabilities. This time, however, it seems that the overt or covert approval of all the major actors in Syria was received, and Turkish armored units started a ground incursion into Syria supported by Turkish F-16 jets and coalition warplanes -making the establishment of such a buffer zone more likely now. Turkish Armed Forces may retreat before long and leave the Syrian opposition groups in charge of a buffer zone as deep as the range of the Turkish artillery.
A few questions come to mind at this point: ISIS gives the impression that it will not mount a staunch resistance. Jarablus is a small town and, since the loss of Manbij, had lost its strategic import. It would have been very difficult and costly to defend. What would ISIS do, if Turkey and Syrian opposition groups marched on Al-Bab, which is convenient for urban warfare? If the Turkish Armed Forces retreat, can the opposition groups resist possible ISIS attacks? What if Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the new name of Al Nusra) and its allies settle in the buffer zone to be created? These groups are considered to be terrorists by Russia and the USA. What would happen if Turkey attempted to fight these groups? What would happen if the groups in this zone staged an attack on Syrian Democratic Forces?
At the joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, the US Vice President Joe Biden indicated that they worked in full harmony with Turkey and that the USA will act in line with Turkey’s concerns over YPG, suggesting that Turkey has made significant headway in its negotiations with the USA. The USA has also told Ankara that any fighting between the Turkish Armed Forces and SDF is totally unacceptable. Without US support, SDF will probably not try to march on Al-Bab from the south of the said buffer zone, to reach Afrin.
It seems that crucial developments for Syria and the region will take place in the coming days. We will soon see the results of Turkey’s diplomatic push coupled with military incursion. However, AKP’s failed Syrian policy will continue to take a heavy toll in social and political terms, in both Syria and Turkey. ISIS and jihadism will remain on Turkey’s agenda for a long time. In particular, each day the fight against the Kurds continues, we will witness the failures of this attempt to resolve a social and ethnic question with brute force and international diplomacy.
For this reason and despite all the challenges involved, we must never refrain from opposing adventurist military interventions which will drag the peoples of Turkey and region towards further polarization and conflict, and always uphold peace against war.
Başlangıç – 25.08.2016