Turkey’s presidency: No ground operation in Syria

Turkey’s presidency: No ground operation in Syria

Following Russia’s intervention in Syria, now the U.S. announced last week that it will deploy troops in northern Syria. Right after this, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu said two days ago that Turkey plans to take military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the upcoming days. 

What’s going on? Is Turkey conforming to the context and planning a ground operation?

Yesterday I had a tête-à-tête with the most suitable person for the right answer: the spokesperson of Turkey’s presidency, İbrahim Kalın.

Upon my question whether Turkey plans to send troops to Syria, Kalın replies that this is not on Turkey’s agenda at the moment. Then would Turkey send troops together with the countries in the region? He says, “No one is planning this at the moment; it is not on the agenda.”

After all, what is Turkey doing against ISIL today? How is it contributing to the international coalition led by the U.S.?

After saying the U.S. is using the İncirlik airbase and Turkey’s airspace for the air operations, Kalın says Turkey has increased security measures along the Syria border in the wake of the bombing in Suruç, a Turkish border town, on July 20, the main suspect of which is ISIL. He adds that the number of the detained ISIL-linked suspects in Turkey has recently increased sharply. “And of course we are supplying logistical support to the Syrian opposition,” he says.

The opposition groups he refers to are mainly the Free Syrian Army, the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah) and Ahrar al-Sham. He emphasizes that Turkey is providing this support together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. 

But then what does Minister Sinirlioğlu’s statement mean, if not a ground operation? I pose this question to an important military source in Ankara. 

He says that this declaration is mainly aimed at air operations, rather than ground operations, signaling that air operations will increase in the upcoming days. 

In addition, an intervention from the ground could be as follows: The military elements along the border with Syria are very likely to increase. In addition, ISIL targets in Syria could be attacked within the range of 40-50 kilometers from the border by Turkey’s fire-support, meaning deployed along the border.

In our tête-à-tête, Ibrahim Kalın also elaborates on the “unknowns” of the most recent developments in Syria.

The U.S. declared last week that it will send 30 special operation forces into Syria soon. Does Turkey expect more American boots on the ground in the upcoming period? “I don’t think so,” Kalın replies. He underlines that the forces to be deployed are “military specialists” to synchronize the fight against ISIL on the ground, rather than a fighting force.

Does he anticipate that Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, will send troops to Syria? “No one is planning this at the moment; it is not on the agenda,” he says.

The U.S. has recently announced that it has ended the train-and-equip-program and will instead increase its aid to a new rebel alliance called the “Democratic Forces of Syria,” which is composed of Kurdish YPG militia and Syrian Arab groups. What’s Ankara’s attitude towards this group?

He says, “The structure of this new group is ambiguous. It seems to be dominated by the PYD [Democratic Union Party].” Accordingly, Turkey has many question marks about this alliance and has shared its concerns with the U.S.

Speaking of the PYD, both the U.S. and Russia are supporting this Kurdish party. Under these conditions, shall we expect any change in Turkey’s policy towards the PYD?

While saying “Turkey doesn’t have any problem with Syrian Kurds, just like it doesn’t have any problem with the Iraqi Kurds,” he specifies three pre-conditions to normalize the relations: the PYD should distance themselves from the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), move to the east of the Euphrates River, in Kalın’s words “to its natural conditions” (to prevent further penetration by the PYD) and end its “dark relations” with the Assad regime. 

Has the “PYD factor” affected Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and Russia negatively? “We share our concerns and doubts with them. Yet we will continue to conduct our own policy,” he replies.

Has there been any progress in the Vienna talks about Syria pioneered by the U.S., Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia? Will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave after a transition period of six months as widely argued?

“This is discussed generally at the table. “‘Six months’ is being mentioned but there is nothing concrete yet,” he says, adding that no document or proposal has been put on the table so far.

An important source from Ankara shared with me on Oct. 19 that the “core coalition” of 10 countries against ISIL led by the U.S. has recently prepared a plan on Syria. Accordingly, Assad would leave after a transition period of six months. The source said U.S. President Obama shared this plan with Russia’s President Putin on Sept. 28 during the United Nations General Assembly sessions in New York. 

Kalın states that the plan mentioned by that source is only oral. “We have not heard anything from Russians on this matter yet. They have not given any answers. So I don’t think there is a concrete plan,” he says. Kalın underlines once again that Assad has to ultimately leave.

“We have tried and consumed all the alternatives. There is no rationale in trying the things which proved to give no result once again,” he says. 

He also attaches more importance to the Vienna talks than to the previous Geneva process: “In the Geneva Conference 1 and 2, Assad just killed the clock. But the Vienna initiative is important.” 
We end the conversation with Iran, who has been Assad’s strongest supporter and has recently joined the Vienna talks. Does Kalın expect Tehran to withdraw its support from Assad? He gives a short answer that already secures a very long Vienna process: “I don’t see any change in their attitude. It seems quite difficult.”