The Turkish offensive against the Kurds that has brought Turkey to the brink of conflict with the U.S. comes as the country is fighting to preserve its leverage in a fractured Syria.
Ankara has much to be concerned about. The Syrian Kurds, allied with the U.S., have been expanding their presence on Turkey’s border. Russia and Iran, allied with Syria’s Assad regime, have been making deep inroads in Syria. And the Syrian rebels allied with Turkey appear to be losing their fight in a final stand in northwestern Syria.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
is particularly worried about the main Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, who he views as terrorists. Determined to prevent them from forming a semiautonomous statelet in northern Syria, Mr. Erdogan has whipped up nationalist support at home and launched an offensive against the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin. He has vowed to move on to another Syrian city, Manbij, where Kurds are based with U.S. forces.
The threat has prompted a flurry of meetings at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and between U.S. Secretary of State
and Mr. Erdogan. The two pledged on Friday to begin working through their differences over Syria and other tensions.
Turkey entered the war in 2011, backing and training rebels bent on bringing down
But as the conflict shifted from an uprising against his dynastic rule to a bloody war drawing in several world powers, the country has become increasingly marginalized.
Last year, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed to uphold deconfliction zones aiming to reduce violence. For Turkey, “strategically, the goal is to keep a toe in the Syrian waters and the peace process,” said
program director for International Crisis Group.
Yet in Idlib, part of the deconfliction area, Russian planes are now helping the Assad regime bomb rebels, some of whom are supported by Turkey.
The Russian intervention in 2015, in particular, helped isolate Turkey, said Mr. Hiltermann. Russia, a much bigger military, became a crucial force in backing up the Assad regime.
Turkey downed a Russian jet that year, which Russia—Turkey’s second-largest trading partner—swiftly punished with sanctions. Turkey and the U.S. both said the Russian jet had violated Turkish airspace, but Mr. Erdogan later sad he was “saddened” it had been shot down.
“Of course Turkey’s role has diminished,” said Mr. Hiltermann. “Turkey is also less popular in Europe and NATO. All that diminishes its leverage.”
The war has been costly. In the past month alone, 31 Turkish soldiers have died in Afrin. Turkey-allied insurgents have largely lost, or are in entangled in the chaotic fight for Idlib, where rebels appear to be losing their last stand against the Assad regime.
From its initial aim of regime change, Turkey now primarily focuses on ensuring its own security. It fights Syrian Kurds, continues to arm rebels fighting regime forces and Islamic State, and has bolstered its borders against a potential new refugee flow.
It is trying to deepen its foothold in the few areas it does control. In al-Bab, captured from Islamic State in 2017, construction has begun on an industrial zone expected to create 6,000 jobs. The Turkish Ministry of Health also plans to finish a 300-bed hospital in al-Bab by summer.
Among all the twists of the Syrian conflict, one of the most confounding is the rift that has surfaced between Turkey and the U.S., the two largest NATO militaries.
In January, Turkey attacked Afrin, which is controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia. Ankara views the YPG as affiliates of the PKK, which wages an insurgency against the Turkish state. The U.S. distinguishes between the two, having relied heavily on the YPG against Islamic State.
In his efforts to block the Kurdish expansion, Mr. Erdogan has threatened to push further east to the city of Manbij, which would bring Turkish forces into conflict with U.S. Special Forces deployed in the city. Neither Ankara nor Washington has so far backed down.
“We have reached a period in the relationship that we have never seen. It has become very brittle,” said
a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
At NATO, European allies warned Turkey that its actions might distract from the fight against Islamic State, some of whose fighters have gone underground or continue to wage guerrilla-style warfare.
But despite the international political isolation, public support at home has swung behind Mr. Erdogan, who is preparing for elections next year. In late January, a survey by ORC Arastirma indicated that 80.7% of Turks supported the Afrin operation.
Absent a negotiation with the U.S. about the Kurdish issue, Mr. Erdogan may resort to military action if only to save face, Mr. Ulgen said.
“The political rhetoric has been so pronounced that it would be difficult to explain to a Turkish public why Turkey is not pushing the Kurds out of Manbij,” he said.
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at [email protected]
Source : WSJ