Opportunity and entrenchment in the Syrian-Turkish clash

Brian M Downing 

Turkey sat on the sidelines during most of the Syrian Civil War. President Erdogan looked on as ISIL mauled the Kurds of Syria, whom he deems supportive of Kurdish militants in his country’s southeast. To his dismay but to the world’s delight, the Kurds, with American help, dealt ISIL a costly defeat at Kobane and went on to roll back the Islamist army from Raqqa and much of northern and eastern Syria.

Erdogan responded by invading northern Syria and establishing a client state in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army – a rebel group that never became a significant actor, despite once being backed by the US. Turkey and the FSA hold a parcel of Syrian land that prevents two tracts of Kurdish territory from coalescing.

More recently, Erdogan has begun a drive on Afrin, just to the west of the FSA statelet. This has put him at odds with Russia and Syria. The latter is sending troops to Afrin. He has also proclaimed his intention to fight the Kurds across the Turkish-Syrian border, which would pit his forces against those backed by the US. Erdogan, then, has managed to sharpen conflict with both Russia and the US, two powers he’d been adroitly playing off against one another. He may have given the US an opportunity.

A Turkish war with the Kurds

Erdogan’s threat of a war with Syrian Kurds across the border with his country is probably a bluff. If he does follow through, he will regret it. Fighting would rage across 500 miles of moderately rugged terrain that the Kurds know well. The Kurds would fight a guerrilla campaign, ceding land and even towns, but fighting at times and places of their choosing. The war would be ceaseless.

Turkey’s Kurds would increase their attacks on government targets. The Kurds constitute about 19% of the population, some 17 million, and are concentrated in the southeast, which includes a stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turks would face a fierce guerrilla war on both sides of the berms. Erdogan may inadvertently but predictably bring about greater cooperation between Turkish and Syrian Kurds.

The conflict could have adverse repercussions with the majority population. Much of it dislikes Erdogan for pushing the country into theocracy. They will use a protracted war to build opposition. As for the army, Erdogan has replaced many high-ranking military officers with personnel sympathetic to his political-religious goals. Nonetheless, many officers and much of the rank and file remain loyal to the secular principles of the nation’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, and believe the army has the duty to see that his principles do not perish.

American opportunity  

Erdogan’s war on Syrian Kurds, presently limited to those around Afrin in the west, gives the US an opening. The US can support Erdogan’s campaign around Afrin, which after all entails fighting Syrian and Iranian troops and Russian backers. Indeed, the US has already signaled that the western Kurds are outside its security interests.

The US can offer to use its influence with eastern Kurds to concentrate on regional autonomy and eschew cooperating with kin in Turkey. Eastern Kurds will get protection from Turkey and from any future effort by Damascus to bring them to heel. Eastern Kurds depend greatly on the US for arms and may be amenable to the arrangement.

The US will benefit by limiting and perhaps reducing comity between Russia and Turkey. The two powers have been enemies since the days of the tsars and caliphs but in recent years have been seeing eye to eye on some issues.

Regional cooperation

Nothing in the region is unaffected by the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel want to weaken Shia power. In particular, they want to block land routes between Iran and allies to the west, Syria and Hisbollah – or be positioned to do so.

The Kurds and Sunni Arabs of eastern Syria, organized as the Syrian Democratic Forces, figure highly in these powers’ strategy. They would provide the military forces, the foreign powers would arm and pay them. SDF troops have proven their effectiveness in combat and the US and Saudi Arabia have a longterm interest in a Sunni statelet in the region.

Turkey benefits from the arrangement. The Kurds will be focused on events in Syria, not cousins in Turkey. Erdogan must be wary of rising Shia power to the south. His movement has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood which has long supported many Sunni rebel groups.

Another attraction is the proposed construction of a pipeline connecting the Persian Gulf with Turkey’s system, which already handles hydrocarbons from Kazakhstan, the Caucasus, and Kurdistan. Adding Gulf states into the system will bring solid revenue for the foreseeable future.

Stability can hardly be assured but the deal is far more promising for the Turks than endless war in Syria’s Kurdish region.

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Numerous strategies for change and cooperation in the Middle East have come and gone. The Sykes-Picot agreement brought imperialist domination for a while, Pan-Arab movements come and go, and the neoconservative plan for democratizing Iraq fell apart not long after Saddam’s statue came down.

An arrangement with Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, brokered by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, is in the works. Russia of course will try to thwart it. The arrangement may prove longer-lasting than the neoconservative vision for Iraq but shorter than Sykes-Picot. It will undoubtedly entrench the US in eastern Syria for a protracted period.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.