Turkey’s mistakes in Syria come home to roost

Turkey’s mistakes in Syria come home to roost

Having been left largely in the cold, Ankara is now trying to get back into the game in Syria in order to promote its security interests in the north of the country. It continues, however, to tread on thin ice. 

The shelling of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the group the West accepts as the umbrella organization of the Syrian Kurds – has certainly added a new element to the crisis which Ankara’s allies are unhappy about.

Whether this risky step will turn out to be a game-changer working to Turkey’s benefit, though, still remains to be seen. 

Ankara has insisted since it started to get concerned about the activities of the PYD, which it says is allied to the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that this group is a tool of the Bashar al-Assad regime. It has failed, however, to convince its allies.

Instead it had to watch as the U.S. began to support the PYD, after YPG fighters became the most effective force against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

The downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 by the Turkish Air Force and Ankara’s recent decision to start shelling YPG positions also rebounded on Turkey. It drove the PYD and Russia together, enabling the Syrian Kurds to get the backing of the two superpowers involved in Syria.

Recent remarks by Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, indicating that the regime is also assisting the PYD, was immediately latched onto by Turkish officials as proof that they were correct on this score from the beginning. 

Many analyst believe, however, that while it is doubtful that this was true in the past to the extent that Ankara claimed, it is likely to happen now because of Turkey. The simple equation here is based on the well-known adage in the Middle East, namely that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Should the Assad-PYD alliance take root west of the Euphrates River, it will also have Russian backing. This would make the situation in northern Syrian potentially even more volatile than it already is. 

This is most likely why the readout of President Barack Obama’s phone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Feb. 19 also underscored the U.S. concern about Syrian regime advances in northwestern Syria.

If the regime, with PYD and Russian support, gains control of territory along Turkey’s border, then this means they will be the potential targets of Turkish shelling. This would represent a serious ratcheting up of the crisis, pitting the Turkish military against the Syrian military, and also involving Russia in some way.

How Turkey would extricate itself from that situation – without military support from its NATO allies, some of whom are already indicating categorically that they would not come to Turkey’s assistance in such a case – is not clear. 

Getting the PYD to ally with the regime might serve Turkey’s immediate interests in terms of relegating the Syrian Kurds to a secondary position, but the real winner would be Erdogan’s arch-enemy, Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, the U.S. need for YPG forces against ISIL, east of the Euphrates River, would increase. This would leave Ankara still seriously at odds with Washington over this issue, which clearly was not resolved during the Obama-Erdoğan phone conversation on Friday.

Whichever way one looks at it, Ankara’s Syrian debacle is deepening. The political mistakes of the government with regard to the Syrian civil war are coming home to roost in ways that are increasingly worrying for ordinary citizens, who are already witnessing Syria-related massacres by this or that terrorist group in the heart of their capital.