The war against ISIL gets real for Turkey
Operation Euphrates Shield, the code name for Turkey’s military operation in Northern Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), started well on Aug. 24 with minimal loss of life among Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies.
Air support from the United States and the advantage provided by Russia’s “non-interference” in this operation are also cited as reasons for Turkey’s fast advance. Washington and Moscow have been pressuring Ankara to take control of its border region and prevent infiltration from ISIL and other such groups. The Euphrates Shield is therefore to their advantage, provided it remains within certain limits.
Turkey also says its operation aims to prevent Syrian Kurds under the banner of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from carving out an autonomous region for the Kurds in northern Syria. Ankara says the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), are linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) but has failed to convince the U.S. and Russia to declare them as terrorist organizations.
The YPG is closely allied to the U.S. in the fight against ISIL, and is also a nominal ally of Russia. Washington has made it clear it does not want Turkish forces confronting YPG fighters. Russia has not made much noise on this score, but it is not a secret that it too is not keen on seeing a Turkish-Kurdish confrontation in Syria.
Moscow has, however, made it clear it does not want a confrontation between Turkey and the Syrian regime. Press reports have indicated that the trade-off, after Ankara’s recent reconciliation with Russia, following their falling out over Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet last November, is that the forces of both countries keep out of each other’s way in Syria.
In other words, Russia will not object to Turkey’s incursion into Syria, and Turkey will not help the rebels fighting regime forces in Aleppo. Ankara’s reluctance to harshly condemn the ongoing massacre in Aleppo is telling in this respect.
The bottom line is that the U.S. and Russia want Turkey to concentrate on ISIL, and not complicate the situation by going after the PYD.
Meanwhile, the news as Turkish forces and FSA fighters prepared to attack Dabiq is not great. The deaths of FSA fighters and Turkish soldiers even before this operation has started in earnest shows that the going will not be as easy as it was in the first days of Euphrates Shield.
The U.S. has declared its willingness to provide air support to the Turkish operation against Dabiq. Turkey’s need for this is much more than some in Turkey are claiming because of the anger they feel towards the U.S. Turkey will also need Russia’s political support.
In order to succeed with minimal loss of life, Ankara requires a strategy that is also coherent for the U.S. and Russia. These two powers may be seriously at odds over Syria today, but they will remain the main power brokers in this crisis.
There is no easy way out of Syria for Turkey now that it has entered the fight. Ankara will have to consider long-term consequences. This will also require close cooperation with its allies and also political cooperation with Moscow. Turkey will also have to understand that Russia will ultimately remain on the other side of the fence, given its determined support for the al-Assad regime.
Put simply, the situation in Syria is about to get real for Turkey militarily and politically. Turkey will have to act according to its true capabilities and pursue realistic policies. Not doing so is likely to lead it into the quagmire that many Turks, chest-beating nationalist zealots aside, fear.