Can Turkey go it alone in Syria?

Can Turkey go it alone in Syria?

Turkish troops have entered their fourth week in Syria. Most security and intelligence analysts believe Turkey has managed the process successfully so far. But there are dark clouds on the horizon that may force a policy change.

As you are reading this article, two more coffins wrapped in the Turkish flag will be sent home carrying the corpses of two fallen soldiers during the Euphrates Shield Operation. The two young men reportedly died not in combat but due to a mine explosion during the construction of a wall that separates the borders. And that means more than “casualties.” 

Signs of trouble emerged last week when Turkey was on holiday. U.S. Special Ops entered the area protected by Kurds but faced an uproar when they came face to face with Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups. Turkish Special Ops convinced their partners and pulled the American soldiers from the danger zone. Pro-government Turkish media shouted in headlines: “US troops booed and kicked out of Syria” as if the FSA has become a legitimate partner overnight and a NATO partner has turned into an insurgent group. The sadness of all this comes with a price tag. Every time Turkish public opinion is misled and manipulated by some pro-government outlets, diplomatic and operational troubles surface in the war theater.

Then a visitor came in from the cold in a development that was so important that we needed to pay more attention to him after his departure. Months after the Russian crisis, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Russian Army, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, came to Ankara for a tête-à-tête with Gen. Hulusi Akar. Establishing a hotline for emergencies was a positive sign of his visit but there was some harsh dialogue as well. Gerasimov reportedly warned his Turkish counterpart about the “international legitimacy” of the cross-border operation. He almost drew a line in the sand regarding the scope of the operation.

Gerasimov got his response not from Akar but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan, on his way to the United Nations meetings in New York, said this in the airport: “They tell us do not go to the south. Why not? We will go all the way to al-Bab.” He then continued his arguments about creating a safe area to construct houses for Syrian refugees and how German Chancellor Angela Merkel had pledged 10 billion euros but had paid nothing, etc. Once again, it has come to buildings and money at the end. Ankara again failed to see the big picture and play the game. 

After the bombing of the U.N. and Red Cross aid convoy, a senior US State Department official blamed the Russians in a background briefing and said, “It’s really incumbent upon them to demonstrate that this can still work if that’s what they believe and if that’s what they still want.” Obviously there are two leading powers on Syrian territory. Turkey technically hates one of them and pretends not to hate the other.

Unfortunately, both sides see this and have dispatched Turkey to conduct “wall construction” and “surface cleaning” and nothing more. Meanwhile, intelligence analysts stress the rising threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Turkey and the growing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) base in the southeast.

Sadly, we are witnessing the most underreported cross-border operation in Turkish military history with no clear aim, no clear strategy and no end in sight.