By Farid Mirbagheri
On August 24, 500 years after the battle of Marj Dabiq, near Aleppo, that presaged the conquest of much of western Asia by the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey rolled its tanks into its war-torn southern neighbour, Syria. In what had long been anticipated, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were dispatched into Syrian territory to assert Ankara’s influence in an increasingly complex and volatile region.
Turkey’s military incursion into Syria was in line with Washington’s long-standing demand for Ankara’s greater involvement in the fight against Islamic State. The operation, code-named Euphrates Shield, received full backing from the US administration. It took the border town of Jarablus from IS which was undoubtedly a blow.
The goals of Turkish policy makers, however, were not confined to pushing back IS. The rise and spread of Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in and around Aleppo province had raised the stakes for Ankara. It wished to curtail moves in the direction of a separate autonomous Kurdish area in Syria that could spill over into its own Kurdish region. US Vice-President Joe Biden during a visit to Turkey on August 24, demanded emphatically the withdrawal of YPG forces in Syria to the east of Euphrates as required by Turkey. If they refused to comply, Biden stated, they would “not under any circumstances get American support”.
The advantages of this military operation are obvious for Ankara. Firstly, IS has been struck a blow. Secondly, if not more importantly, YPG’s spread has been stemmed, at-least for now. Thirdly, with troops in Syria, neither Turkey’s interests nor its role can be overlooked in any future settlement of the Syrian crisis.
However, there are risks associated with Turkey’s military operation in Syria. First and foremost, it is bound to escalate Ankara’s conflict with the Islamic state and YPG. Considering its large Kurdish population, the military incursion into Syria may further heighten and polarise the Kurdish issue at home. Secondly, Euphrates Shield increases the risks of entanglement with Russia and Iran, whose underlying goals in Syria are diametrically opposed to those of Turkey. Thirdly, as we know, sending in troops to another country may prove costlier than initially thought, particularly if there are no well-defined exit strategies in the short to medium-term. Last but not least, the recent purge in the army is bound to have had a negative qualitative impact on Turkey’s military efficacy. Military incursion into Syria may dangerously expose Turkey’s diminished military prowess.
All of which goes to show that Ankara needs Washington more than ever. It is Turkey’s membership in NATO that provides it with the confidence to chart its own path in Syria even if it comes down to blasting a Russian fighter jet. As for military hardware Turkey is very much dependent on the United States. Its air force is almost entirely supplied with US-manufactured technology. Therefore, in spite of diplomatic overtures to Moscow by President Erdogan, it is hard to imagine any major shift in Turkey’s US-orientation in the coming years.
From the stated goal of zero problems with other countries, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has oscillated to the point of loosening ties with Israel for six years (2010-16), strained relations with Egypt since 2013 and now to military incursion in Syria. In the turbulent waters of western Asian politics one is left wondering what the grand strategies of Turkish policy makers may be.
Professor Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia