(photo credit: ISLAMIC SOCIAL MEDIA)
The Turkish operation against Islamic State last Thursday came after about nine months of resistance to involvement in a direct war against the organization and preferring to follow a “keep away from me I will keep away from you” policy. The only action taken by Turkey against IS previously had been allowing Kurdish Peshmerga forces allied with the Erbil government in Iraqi Kurdistan, and small numbers of fighters from the Free Syrian Army, to enter Kobani through its border to fight together with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against IS.
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There were two reasons behind Turkey’s “passive” approach toward IS. The first was its disappointment with the coalition not including opposition to the Assad regime in its campaign; the second was its stance toward the YPG, considered by Turkish officials as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group in Turkey.
YPG’s seizing of the border town of Tal Abyad in Syria, which lies north of the large city of Raqqah, in the middle of June scared Turkey. The YPG was able to conquer vast territories in northeast Syria and seemed it would proceed unimpeded toward Afrin, a town in northwest Syria, to unify its Kurdish-speaking cantons and establish a de-facto state.
This scenario caused panic in the halls of the Turkish government in Ankara. They feared that the US and Saudi Arabia, the two leading coalition members against IS, would look favorably on a Kurdish state extending from Hasaka in northeast Syria to Afrin in the west, all along the border with Turkey.
Turkey also was aware of the influence of these two countries over the Syrian opposition to Assad and the high possibility that their allied Free Syrian Army rebel groups would accept a Kurdish de-facto state led by the YPG as long as the Kurds acceded to the Syrian rebels’ offensive to retake Aleppo.
In the end Turkey found itself forced to take action.
The first step was massing troops on the Turkish-Syrian border and sending signals to the Western-backed coalition against IS that it will not allow any more YPG progress. The Turks drew a line from Jarablus, which is northeast of Aleppo on the Syrian-Turkish border, to Kobani, the Kurdish city that had withstood an IS siege, and marked this as a “red line” that it would not allow the YPG to cross.
America was receptive to this message and contacted Turkish officials, offering cooperation. After a month of negotiation an agreement was reached. It may have been a coincidence, in Turkey’s favor, that just as the two countries were sealing a pact, a suicide bomber struck in Suruc on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, killing Kurds who were involved in a project to help rebuild Kobani. Then two Turkish police officers were assassinated, and a climate of disorder appeared to erupt in Kurdish-dominated southeast Turkey.
Last but not least, a Turkish soldier died and two were wounded in an unexpected IS shooting on massed Turkish troops on the border.
According to the official Turkish narrative of why Turkey intervened, this ignited the direct fighting between the Turkish army and IS. Skeptics in Turkey argue that Turkey started the shooting, and that it came just one day after a call between US President Barack Obama and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
BEFORE talking about the future scenarios of Turkish operations against IS, some familiarity is necessary with Turkish foreign policy over the last 12 years, under the leadership of the Justice and Development party (AKP).
Despite rhetoric about a new Turkish role in the region and the slogans about “neo-Ottomanism,” AKP’s foreign policy has been hesitant, with a priority being put on the economy. Thus the AKP turned the party over to a new economic elite and started to indulge itself in newfound wealth; and insofar as it remained true to its initial values it attempted to show off humanitarian aid.
The Turkish policy toward Syria is an obvious example of foreign policy failure. In the beginning of the crisis in Syria, then prime minister Erdogan talked harshly against the Assad regime’s crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators in 2011, vowing not to allow Assad to repeat the kind of massacres his father had carried out in the 1980s. But many massacres were committed since 2011, and Turkey has done nothing. It failed to have a significant influence on the opposition groups in Syria, although it did help these groups by opening the border and facilitating the flow of weapons to them. AKP was reluctant to take the risk of any kind of intervention, fearing that it would affect the economy and weaken the party. The only good thing the Turkish government has done is helping the Syrian refugees, establishing camps and allowing them to work and move freely.
WE SEE two possible future scenarios regarding Turkish operations in Syria. In one scenario Turkey will continue its operation with the coalition to remove IS as a threat to the country and stop Kurdish progress towards Afrin without doing anything against Assad. In this case Turkey will entirely lose its credibility in the region and will be seen as a client of the US.
The second possibility is that Turkey will take the lead in providing a safe area in north Syria in which Assad’s air force is not longer able to operate. The Turkish Hurriyet newspaper claims that an agreement between Turkey and the US has opened Incirlik airbase in Turkey to coalition aircraft in exchange for allowing Turkey to establish this safe region in the north of Syria. The agreement has not yet officially been declared by either country. The New York Times wrote that General John R. Allen, Obama’s special envoy for the fight against IS, has denied the rumors of a no-fly zone.
If Turkey acts only on the basis of its interests and does not establish a safe haven for Syrian civilians it will be criticized; this will prove the claims that it refrained from involvement in a fight against IS due to of double standards. If Turkey does not prove that it wants to help the Syrian people, that will strengthen support for IS inside Syria, and for Syrians Turkey will be seen as a hypocrite.
Turkey now has in front of it a test to prove its independence, and the outcome of the Turkish involvement in the fight will show how much Turkey is committed to the values of its foreign policy, and whether that policy is a brave one after long years of hesitancy. The future will tell.
The author is a Syrian journalist. His name has been changed to protect his identity.