By Farid Mirbagheri
TURKEY seems to have its back to the wall. Its troops now fighting the Syrian Kurds will increasingly find themselves in a conflict they will probably not be able to win. The country under President Erdogan’s leadership has already managed to put a distance between itself and Washington and its flirtation with the Kremlin is unlikely to come to its assistance either. In fact the US and Russia have both openly stated their unease about Turkey’s latest military operation in Syria. Iran also has indicated its unhappiness over the affair.
The Turkish leader, however, may have felt he was running out of options. In his view lack of military moves against the Syrian Kurds could have amounted to the solidification of Kurdish forces there with the all-too-obvious implication of a domino effect into the Kurdish areas in southern Turkey.
Inaction, therefore, Erdogan may have felt, could have put Turkey’s territorial integrity at risk in the long run. The Turkish army, already at odds with the president and still a force that could potentially topple his Islamic government, would have then been able to portray him as a weak leader, who shies away from resolute action at a time when it is required to safeguard the interests of the country. Such promulgations by the military cadres could prove very costly for the incumbent president in the forthcoming 2019 elections.
That is not to say that this new military incursion has secured Erdogan any political victory at home, however. The Kurds his troops are fighting are well-equipped to withstand the assault and Russia’s restrictions on access to Syrian air space together with the mountainous hideouts of the Kurds somewhat protect them from Turkish aerial bombardment. The Turks are already suffering from casualties and it may not be long before the stifled-Turkish media begin to question the wisdom of Erdogan’s policy.
Which is why the Turkish president is now trying to bring Washington closer to his stand. As a NATO ally the Turkish demarche may have found a more receptive audience in the White House had it not been for the periodic irritating rhetorical pronouncements of Ankara aimed at the US. The rapprochement with Moscow, after the downing of a Russian fighter-jet by Turkey in 2015, also appears to have gone past the comfort zone that Washington prefers to dwell in. President Trump may not be as pliable as his predecessor.
So what is the embattled President Erdogan to do? Action against the Kurds in Syria will probably isolate his country during a critical period when allies are an indispensable part of any effective political manoeuvring in the region. It may also in the course of the run-up to next year’s elections alienate some important power brokers in Turkey to the detriment of Erdogan and his party. Inaction, on the other hand, could have also proven costly both in terms of the longer term territorial integrity of the country as well as risking a deeper and broader rift between him and Turkey’s exasperated generals. Either way, next year the Turkish leader seems destined to face an election that could prove to be his nemesis.
Farid Mirbagheri is Professor of International Relations, Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies, Department of Politics and Governance, School of Law, University of Nicosia