‘Afghanization’ of Syria and the choice between the lesser of evils

‘Afghanization’ of Syria and the choice between the lesser of evils

“We are at war with Syria,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaking on the night of March 30, which marked his victory in the local elections.

He was complaining about the leaked audio recording of Turkey’s top branch’s meeting about responding to an imminent threat stemming from Syria. He was rightly complaining that Turkey’s national security was jeopardized in order to harm him.

While Turkey is not officially at war with Syria, the prime minister’s description cannot to be taken lightly. The question is which Syria are we at war with? And there comes the challenge: there is no longer one Syria. But as of now, we can clearly say the two most hostile actors against Turkey is Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIS). It seems that it is no confidence that these two never fought against each other.  While Turkish authorities lack clear evidence and therefore conviction that there is an organic link between the two, the fact that the two have never fought against each other points to an unnamed holy alliance.

Along the 911 km Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey confronts al-Assad’s war planes in the air and ISIS on the land.

Four critical border gates are under the control of ISIS. What’s more, ISIS has gained the control of the territory surrounding the tomb of Süleyman Shah, a very important historic figure for Turkey. This tiny stretch of land is Turkey’s only territory outside of its borders that belongs to Turkey.

When ISIS took hold of the territory on March 12; the meeting in which its audio recording was leaked took place the next day; resulting in Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s warning that the slightest attempt to target the tomb, protected by a small Turkish contingency of two dozen soldiers, will meet Turkey’s unequivocal reaction.

As a response, ISIS threatened to pull out its soldiers and bring down its flag; and as Turkey has not bowed down, ISIS so far has not taken a step to substantiate its threat. 

Yet, the fact remains that Turkey is at war with a non-state actor at its border. What makes ISIS more dangerous is 90 percent of its recruits are made up of non-Syrians, it is believed to be open to all kinds of manipulation; so at the end of the day you don’t even know which manipulator you are fighting against.

Let’s put aside the reasonability of the Turkish government in ending up in such a mess at the border; one thing is for sure that while Ankara was wrong in its assessment about al-Assad’s quick departure, it was right about its assessment as to the possible scenarios in the absence of a departure. Ankara told Washington from the early days on that Syria would become the land of radical Islamist groups and that if the regime was let to survive, each day would bring us closer to the “Afghanization” of Syria.

While as of today Turkey seems to be paying the consequences of “Afghanization,” we should not forget that “Afghanization” ended with the 9-11 attacks in the U.S.

According to a high level Turkish official, the “Afghanization” risk started to resonate much more in Washington’s corridors. “The U.S. is more open to talk about options it used to not talk about,” said the official. The Turkish authorities seem to be convinced that the regime will never ever be able to establish its authority throughout Syria and in the absence of a political solution in the near future, the challenge appears to be finding the ways to empower the opposition. So the choice is going to be between the lesser of the two (or multiple) evils. This is no easy endeavor.

The fact remains that just as we were thinking of getting rid of the terrorism of the PKK, we are now facing another dangerous terrorist organization in asymmetrical warfare.