By Esam A. Aziz
Concepts & Thoughts
Washington D.C.–No longer than five months ago, Turkish officials dealing with the banking sector were preparing plans to establish the first Turkish bank in northern Syria. “While we respect the existing borders, we need to create common economic, political and cultural zones that go beyond borders, and to make the people converge in this way.” Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesperson Ömer Celik said during a press conference on Feb. 4.
Mr. Celik even went so far as to describe the 100-year old Sykes-Picot deal which drew the current borders in the Near East as “artificial”, suggesting that the “nation-state approach adopted in the 19th century should be revised”.
Now, however, Turkish banking officials have to pause. It is the Turkish Second Army, not banking executives, who are rushing to the Turkish-Syrian “artificial” borders. Russia and its allies are on the other side of the border and Erdogan’s arch enemy, the PKK, is expanding its control over the borders very rapidly.
In essence, this is a conflict between Turkey and its allies on the one hand, and Russia and its allies on the other. Each side is engaged in a complex endeavor to control Syria and shape its future. It brings to memory the history of the Ottoman-Russian wars of the 19th century. Erdogan, in his public speeches, talks openly about shaping the future of his country on the model of its past. Putin, in his part, is also stuck with the objective of reviving the Soviet empire which, in his view was “unfairly dismantled”.
Erdogan is faced with a real problem in Syria. To have an idea about his aspirations-turned-nightmare, one needs to take a comprehensive look at the layout of the intricate conflict in north Syria right now. But for the moment, it is sufficient to say that the possibility of a Turkish ground intervention in that region is the one single element that represents an imminent threat not only to Turkey, but also to all countries involved in this “Mother of all Crises”.
Two factors are pushing the Turkish president in this risky direction. The first is that he is left with no acceptable alternative. The second is that the PKK affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) is not playing by any text, not even by those of the Americans, but its own. The YPG tricked the US backed opposition groups January 11 and attacked the Menagh north of Aleppo few hours after getting their allies in Syria Democratic Forces to announce a ceasefire. The US is said not to have been consulted about the attack by the group it supports.
Cornering Erdogan is a risky endeavor. Theoretically, he should have always been given a face saving exit. But the problem with such a proposition–offering the Turkish president an exit–is that there is none easily available. Some diplomats in the Washington say that if the US does not attract the YPG to its trenches, the Russians will attract them to theirs. This sounds a little too naïve. The YPG already has strong ties with Moscow.
So long as the US places its bets on the YPG, the group will further expand the territories it controls. Instead of leaking information to the effect of US fully losing control the YPG, the real name of the game should be uttered candidly. And the real name of the game is the “Race to Raqqa”.
The race to Raqqa, which the Obama administration hopes will end triumphantly before the change of guards in the White House, is leaving the administration with the most expedient and convenient group capable of defeating ISIS/ISIL. But this race is perceived differently depending on which corner of the crisis one stands.
For Erdogan, the race to Raqqa is an imminent threat. Not because of ISIS, but because it gives a PKK-affiliated group an almost undisputed control over a long stretch of land bordering Turkish territory. The race to Raqqa, which is very active now as we see from recent advances against ISIS in the Hasakah, has nothing Turkish in it. It is perceived as a major step towards Mosul along the Turkish borders and by forces which Turkey considers to be its arch enemies.
The nightmare for Erdogan Has always been to see a PKK-friendly Kurdish entity established across Turkey’s borders. But as it looks now, when all the dust settles, he would find the Kurds controlling a long stretch of territories extending from Efren in the far north-west of Syria, all the way to its eastern flank by Sulaymaniyah near the Iranian border. It is not only that Erdogan lost his bank’s business in the north Syria, he should also deal with a nightmare come true.
The assumption that Erdogan will stand idle is as dangerous as cornering him. Furthermore, to assume that the YPG would restrain its moves according to US plans, or would refrain from targeting the Turks, are all parts of the same elusive views we hear from time to time in Washington.
Erdogan is not particularly known for being self-restraint, and the Kurdish-Turkish national fight is decades-old.
Is it then a checkmate for Erdogan in northern Syria? Not yet, but it is getting there. Turkey still has some alternatives, however, none of them looks pretty.
The Turkish president is moving fast to build a coalition with some regional powers to go to Syria. Establishing a Safe Zone (SZ) is being promoted as a convincing argument in any public debate. But there is nothing public here. The Russians may respond with bombs to any Turkish intervention in Syria.
Recently, Erdogan said that his country wants to avoid the mistakes it did in 2003 in Iraq. He was referring to the Turkish Parliament’s rejection of a government plan to enter northern Iraq then. His statement is self-explanatory.
In anticipation of Turkish moves, Moscow submitted a proposed resolution to the UNSC demanding an immediate halt of cross-border shelling and ground intervention in Syria. It will be rejected of course, but the move reveals that the Russians expect the Turks and the Arabs to cross the Syrian borders, potentially in the near future.
The SZ proposal aims at creating a proper context for the US, if and when it changes its strategy in Syria (2017?). But if the proposal gains momentum before that, so be it. In all cases, such a SZ could not be established without the US approval. Could the proposal be aimed at giving the Americans some leverage? Could it be a scare tactic to tell the Russians to halt their zero-sum game and show some flexibility?
Time will tell. But so far, there are indeed preparations for a multi-national intervention. The timing still remains to be determined. And as the Saudis said, the timing is left to the coalition (read: the U.S) to decide. The Turks may surprise everyone, however, and invade northern Syria anyway even without an American approval.
Another option is to provide the Syrian insurgents with manpads from certain Arab and international suppliers. The Saudi Foreign Minister demanded publicly that the rebels be given the powerful anti-air missiles which the Russians are familiar with from their intervention in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Erdogan may opt for a long term proxy war against the PKK, Assad, the Russians, and the Iranian-backed militias in Syria. Expressively, Turkish artillery avoids bombing ISIL. We can only imagine what may happen in this long term scenario. But the writings are on the wall.
But, as if all this were not enough for the Turkish president, Erdogan now faces similar troubles in Iraq, though still on a more manageable scale. The perpetual nightmare of Erdogan is shaping up before his own eyes in reality. The full story of ISIS, yet to be written, is almost borrowing a page from a Greek tragedy where the arrow miraculously makes a U-Turn in mid-air and heads directly at the shooter.
The difference in the case of Iraq is that Erdogan is already there. In light of his troubles in Syria, there is little hope he can pull out his forces from a camp close to Mosul. Indeed, he recently rejected the idea of pulling out his forces in no ambiguous way.
What is left for Erdogan is trouble making. That does not make him stand above all the other players. They all make troubles, either intentionally, or for lack of a meaningful option.
To help defuse the risk of a major confrontation between the Russians and the Turks in northern Syria, several steps should be considered. The US should enforce the perception that it will make a bold move (e.g. establishing a Safe Zone). It may even be necessary to do exactly that to inject an element of leverage ownership over the unfolding of events. Limiting the expectations of the main parties is important to forming a potential common ground.
It is also important to encourage the Turkish military, which disagrees with Erdogan on the proposition of invading northern Syria, to hold its opposition for as long as possible. This should be coupled with a candid advice to the Turks that they should not expect NATO to rush to their help at the risk of confrontation with Moscow, all the while Washington should credibly convince Moscow that the Alliance would be inclined to stand by the Turks in any confrontation.
A double-play is usually naïve and would be short-lived. This is why moving on the proposition of SZ may help. This does not mean necessarily establishing such a zone.
The superficial and misleading equation of “ISIS first, then Assad” should be abandoned. It reflects a bi-focal approach to a crisis which should have been approached as a whole. It ultimately led to lifting this crisis to a level where neither ISIS nor Assad exists.
Means of an overall leverage to the West, short of massive military intervention, should be found. For example, a specific unit of US-trained opposition could be provided with a couple of manpads to target Assad jets only on two or three occasions as a show case.
EU pressure on both the Kurds and the Turks to resume talks should be intensified with serious and practical steps.
The methodological error in dealing with the recent phase of the Syrian crisis stems, as mentioned above, from the partial and over-simplified approach condensed in the question of “who first?”. The objective should have always been viewed in terms of how to solve the Syrian crisis. This will entail defeating ISIS.
The imminent objective now is how to cap Russian, Kurdish and Turkish goals. We need tools to achieve that urgent objective.
Esam A Azis is an Egyptian-French researcher and analyst with over 35 years of research on the geopolitics and geo-energy issues of the Middle East. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of Arab Oil&Gas, a publication of Arab Oil & Gas Research Center in Paris. Former editor of Emirates Today, a weekly economic magazine based in Dubai, Mr. Aziz has researched extensively the rise of political Islam and terrorism. He is now the co-editor of Middle East Briefing, a weekly newsletter based in Washington. Mr. Aziz is based in Washington DC and could be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org