Is Turkey up for a ground operation?
On the last day of Eid al-Adha, reports from Kobane, a Kurdish town right on the other side of the Syrian border, indicated the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was getting closer to seizing control of the town, weeks after heavy clashes with the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Defense Forces (YPG).
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledged this very concerning development on Oct. 7 as he addressed Syrian refugees in the İslahiye district of Gaziantep, a border town. “Kobane is about to fall,” he said, urging Western allies to cooperate for a ground operation.
Erdoğan reiterated Turkey’s concerns that airstrikes would not provide a solution to end the terror in the region, stressing the need to expel the Bashar al-Assad regime for a permanent solution. “We are following the attacks on Kobane and other towns where our Kurdish brothers live with great concern,” he said.
Although Turkey is aware of the danger that ISIL’s capture of Kobane would cause to regional stability, it seems unlikely that Ankara will engage in a military campaign against the jihadists. One could highlight two major reasons for this position: First, it does not want to reinforce the autonomy that Syrian Kurds have been establishing in northern Syria since late 2012. A growing autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria, as a follow-up to the one in northern Iraq, is considered to be not such a pleasant development for Turkey.
However, Turkey’s inaction could have consequences on its ongoing Kurdish resolution process, as Kurdish politicians and public opinion are becoming more vocal in their sharp criticisms against the government. That could have a negative impact on the efforts to build trust between the government and Kurds both inside and outside Turkey.
In the second phase, Ankara believes that if Turkish boots are on the ground, they should be there to deal with the malady itself and not its symptom. Furthermore, it believes that the weakening of ISIL through military means, without doing anything against al-Assad, would only help Damascus to regain control of the country. Given the international community’s vanishing ambitions to topple al-Assad, the threat posed by ISIL could be used to keep the world’s attention on the issue.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made this position clear in an interview with CNN International on Oct. 7. “We are ready to do everything if there is a clear strategy that after ISIL, we can be sure that our border will be protected. We don’t want the regime on our border anymore, pushing people toward Turkey. We don’t want other terrorist organizations to be active there,” Davutoğlu said.
He expressed Turkey’s willingness to launch a ground operation in Syria for the objective of “not just punishing one terrorist organization, but eliminating all terrorist threats in the future, and also to eliminate all brutal crimes against humanity committed by the regime.”
Davutoğlu echoed Erdoğan as he recalled that Turkey had three conditions to actively side with the anti-ISIL coalition forces: Building safe havens in Syria, establishing a no-fly zone, and training the moderate Syrian opposition. The problem is that Turkey’s partners do not consider the al-Assad problem to be as urgent as the problem of ISIL and other jihadist organizations. They therefore remain hesitant to remove the regime, given this very blurry picture of the Middle East.
What we understand from Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s remarks is that Turkish troops will not enter Syria to help the Kurds in Kobane or to fight against ISIL. A boots-on-the-ground scenario would only happen under these conditions if the objective is to change the regime in Syria, meaning removing al-Assad by force.
With all this being the case, it will take some more time for Turkey and its Western partners to harmonize their positions and determine what their priorities are.