President Erdoğan in driving seat in dealing with Syria turmoil

President Erdoğan in driving seat in dealing with Syria turmoil

Amid uncertainty over the composition of the next government after June 7 elections, the tension along the Turkish-Syrian border has intensified to the advantage of the Syrian Kurds that grabbed the control of strategic city Tal Abyad from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). An intensified air campaign by the United States-led anti-coalition forces helped the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s military wing, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to push ISIL militants back to Rakka. 

The PYD could therefore bring together its three cantons, Jazira, Afrin and Kobane, in a bid to fortify its self-proclaimed entity in the northern Syria, a development that concerns Turkey. Ankara has openly told members of the anti-ISIL coalition that the PYD’s move aimed to change the demographic conditions of the region by pushing Arabs and Turkmens to leave the area to new incoming Kurdish population. 

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç announced late June 15 that Turkish officials sent letters to their counterparts to express their concerns over recent developments in the field. Turkey is not against air bombings and welcomes ISIL’s defeat but believes that the ongoing military campaign is also being used by the PYD for its own future plans. 

Although there is a lame duck government in Ankara, Turkish and foreign diplomats underline that parties are in close dialogue over the recent developments. Despite Ankara’s concerns, the anti-ISIL coalition has no plans to abandon its campaign against ISIL, as diplomats say strikes would continue in line with military necessities while, at the same time, taking care of civilians in the region. 

It’s no doubt Turkey and the U.S. are still on different pages about priorities in Syria, as the former presses on the quick toppling of Bashar al-Assad, while the latter uses every mean necessary to eliminate ISIL from both Iraq and Syria. In the meantime, more Syrians fled to Turkey making the total refugees around two millions at a cost of $6 billion on the Turkish budget. 

One not-so-strong possibility is that the corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border under the PYD forces could well be used as a safe zone in which Syrian refugees would be sheltered with the help of international humanitarian aid. That safe zone would, at the same time, help local forces to become more coordinated with anti-ISIL coalition members in their fighting against both ISIL and Assad regime. 

Turkish officials have already voiced their intention to cooperate with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on this initiative, although we have not heard any concrete development so far. 

The question is how developments in Syria will affect the Turkish political climate and its efforts to build a coalition government? President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seemingly the most active official among the Turkish political elite but his priority seems to be stopping Syrian Kurds’ from bringing their cantons together in line with their political purposes. There are also accusations of ethnic cleansing of Turkmens and Arabs in northern Syria that would eventually bring about calls of intervention from Turkey.

A pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak headline on June 16 read, “This war will grow even more.” The article accused the PYD of kicking Turkmens and Arabs into Turkey. It argued the U.S. was backing the PYD’s moves by air campaigns.   

Intensification of the war in northern Syria that would make Turkish intervention inevitable will definitely have repercussions on the government-making process in Turkey. At a moment when we’ll have no a strong government, it will be Erdoğan who will be in the driving seat of the Turkish foreign policy: a development enough to make everyone worry.