Turkey doesn’t want to be bypassed on Syria

Turkey doesn’t want to be bypassed on Syria

The most interesting news of yesterday (Feb. 16) was about a statement by an unnamed Turkish official who said the government was “asking allies” about the possibility of a land operation into Syria. The official reportedly said Turkey would only get involved in such an operation if it was “with allies.”

“With allies” in Turkish diplomacy means “with the U.S.” The U.S. is Turkey’s major military ally and is also the leading member in the Western defense alliance NATO. The words of the Turkish official can safely be read as meaning that Turkey is talking to the U.S. (and perhaps other allies too – it’s not hard to imagine Ankara talking to NATO partners and perhaps Saudi Arabia). If there is any possibility of a ground operation into Syria, it would mean there is direct or indirect American approval.

It is another point entirely whether all of the U.S., the U.K., and France (as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) would approve a land operation into Syria, which would mean direct confrontation with another permanent U.N. Security Council member Russia and its ally China. There is also Germany to consider, which is the major target of the refugee flow out of Syria.

Turkish-Russian tension in the Syria theater is a concern of international community. The U.S. has asked both countries to talk their problems out, but that is a long way from the mood right now in Ankara. Addressing his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) parliamentary group in on Feb. 16, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu denounced the Russian air strikes as “vile, cruel and barbaric.” He said it was well-known that the towns of Azez and Tel Rifat and the area north of Aleppo were held by neither the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) nor al-Nusra, but Russian planes nevertheless bombed urban areas there without discriminating. Davutoğlu also said Russia was using the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) Kurdish militia as “mercenaries” for al-Assad, repeating that Turkey regards the PYD as a terrorist organization and the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

For the time being, the chances of a NATO-sponsored ground operation into Syria are not high. But Turkey has tried to stress that any deal struck by the U.S. and Russia that bypasses or ignores the concerns of Turkey – which has a 910 km border with Syria - might fail, with serious consequences for everyone.

Is this just “realpolitik”?  Perhaps. After all, there might be a limit to Washington’s tolerance of Russian moves in Syria if the U.S. also wants to assuage the concerns of the Baltic and Eastern European states amid Russia’s moves in Ukraine. It is not for nothing that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed both Syria and Ukraine during their telephone conversation on Feb. 14. Ankara wants to make it clear that it would be risky to sideline Turkey in any macro plans regarding Syria’s future.