Time for Ankara to call Damascus?
The Turkish Armed Forces sustained the most casualties last weekend since the beginning of “Operation Olive Branch.” Whether it was the initial downing of an ATAK helicopter or the follow-up surge of a group of Turkish soldiers that led to the fight, the result was a dramatic loss of 11 soldiers. The nature of combat had apparently changed dramatically.
Despite all the TV talking heads vowing that the Turkish military is able to manage such a “hybrid war,” it is time to face the reality that it cannot fully predict the actions of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) groups in the Afrin area. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been active there for decades and is taking full advantage of the geography. This was the trap that started clashes over the weekend. The Turkish soldiers were young, driven and energetic, but they had relatively less experience in fighting the PKK.
“Operation Olive Branch” is moving into a crucial step of choices. The army has so far deliberately advanced slowly and carefully, both in order to avoid civilian casualties and to give space for diplomacy to take effect.
The daily newspaper Aydınlık, the mouthpiece of nationalist secularist politician Doğu Perinçek’s Homeland Party, has been reporting extremely carefully about possible deliberations that should take place in order to avoid casualties and “not to fall into the U.S.’s trap.” Last week U.K.-based Syrian journalist Nizar Nayouf tweeted that Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan had secretly arrived at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria for talks with his Syrian counterpart. Ankara naturally denied such a development, but the events that followed were intriguing: Syria not only downed an Israeli plane in the south but also bombed YPG positions in the north, where U.S. advisors are also stationed.
To make matters more complicated, over the weekend there were several social media reports that Iran-backed Shia militias were involved in attacks against the Turkish army. There were a number of pictures of Iranian-made jeeps being driven by YPG/PKK militants.
Intelligence sources have also referred to recent interactions between the U.S. and some opposition groups in and around Idlib, rural Aleppo, and generally west of the Euphrates. Turkish commanders on the field are being warned about “any provocation that may ignite unwanted clashes and may spiral out of control.” Russia is waiting on the sidelines for Turkey to use its full firepower before pulling up the chairs to speak to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s people.
At the end of the day, we in Turkey are left with the images of young, killed Turkish soldiers. They ran bravely into the fire without thinking for a second about life and possibilities they left behind. One young helicopter pilot who died in clashes was doing his master’s in Avionics and Space at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. His young widow is an academic at the same university. The wife of another killed young soldier is a police officer.
Maybe, before coming to Ankara for his key visit on Feb. 15, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should watch the movie “Lions for Lambs,” which tells the story of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Amid this dangerous escalation, perhaps the time is coming for Ankara to call Damascus.