Turkey’s goal is endless uncertainty in Syria

Things have come full circle. With Trump gone it is Ankara that appears to be begging for attention from the Biden administration.

US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)
US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey
(photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)

Turkey’s President went to Europe for a meeting with US President Joe Biden. Ostensibly the meeting was so that Turkey could pitch some new policies to the US administration. Ankara has had to walk a thin line with the Biden administration because it was so close to the Trump administration and the ruling party in Turkey has been hostile to US Democrats and Biden in particular. 

However Turkey has other things it wants. It wants to create instability and uncertainty in Syria as a distraction. Back in 2015 Turkey became concerned that the US was backing the newly created Syrian Democratic Forces, who were defeating ISIS in Syria. Turkey, which had helped enable tens of thousands to cross the border and join ISIS, wanted to use extremist groups in Syria as tools of Ankara’s policy. When those groups fought eachother and some turned to join ISIS, Ankara realized that it had to take a more active role in Syria. 

In the beginning Ankara wanted a cheap way to support the Syrian rebels. By 2015 with the US sending special forces to Syria, Turkey became concerned that an empowered Kurdish-run polity in eastern Syria might inspire Kurds in Turkey. The ruling AKP party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had once courted Kurdish voters but by 2015 it had begun to turn on minorities and former allies as it stoked conspiracy theories and increasing authoritarianism.  

Turkey shifted in 2015, eventually coming to work with Russia and Iran in Syria. After the 2016 coup attempt and after the HDP party in Turkey had gained in the polls, Ankara began sending soldiers to Syria. Several operations led to ethnic cleansing of Kurds and gave Turkey a swath of northern Syria. With the Trump administration in power in 2017 Turkey was able to push for more of a role in Syria. Turkey sold itself as being tough on Iran, but it rapidly came to challenge NATO during the Trump years, happy to see an “America first” president that might withdraw from the Middle East and let Turkey take America’s place.  

Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria January 21, 2019.SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERSMissile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria January 21, 2019.SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

Now things have come full circle. With Trump gone it is Ankara that appears to be begging for attention from the Biden administration. Ankara has less selling points to Biden. With Trump the Turkish leader would speak about a “deal” for Syria and outsourcing the ISIS conflict to Ankara.  Biden is more practical. The US said on October 31 that “President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. met today with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on the margins of the G20 Summit. President Biden underscored his desire to maintain constructive relations, expand areas of cooperation, and manage our disagreements effectively.” 

The read out from the White House says Biden “expressed appreciation for Turkey’s nearly two decades of contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The leaders discussed the political process in Syria, the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghans in need, elections in Libya, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, and diplomatic efforts in the South Caucasus. President Biden reaffirmed our defense partnership and Turkey’s importance as a NATO Ally, but noted U.S. concerns over Turkey’s possession of the Russian S-400 missile system. He also emphasized the importance of strong democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and the rule of law for peace and prosperity.”

A lot of this is just diplomatic niceties. What matters for Ankara is that the US pay lip service to this “NATO ally” concept. Turkey wants more F-16s now and it wants a blank check to buy Russia’s S-400 system. But Ankara also moves from embracing the US to bashing the US every week. This could be read as chaos and instability, but the threats and bullying have a pattern and are part of Ankara’s closely managed policy. Turkey threatens western countries and then appears to want to meet them as a way of not just playing “good cop, bad cop” but also making it seem Ankara is being moderate. This is the pattern of behavior Iran has adopted as well and Turkey is learning from how Iran squeezes concessions from the West.  

On Syria the rumor is that Turkey wants to launch a new invasion of Kurdish areas. Turkey may demand some joint patrols or areas around Kobane. This comes amidst the celebration of “Kobane day” in areas where the SDF is present. This represents the heroic victory over ISIS in the battle of Kobane from 2014 to 2015. In that desperate battle the Kurds fought to hold the city as they were surrounded. It was like the battle of Stalingrad in 1942. This was the high water mark of ISIS and after Kobane the Kurds and later the SDF gained US support and eventually defeated ISIS in Raqqa.  

Unfortunately for the SDF it was the victories in places like Raqqa and Manbij that led to Ankara seeking to shift the Syrian fighters that Ankara backed in Syria to fight Kurds. The goal of Ankara became a simple cynical trade off: Use Syrian rebels to fight the Kurdish-run SDF and in so doing get the two independent movements in Syria to cancel eachother out. With the partly Kurdish SDF fighting the mostly Arab Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), Turkey could broker deals with Russia and carve up the spoils.  

Now the rumor is of another “trade” in Syria where Turkey will let the Russian-backed Syrian regime take some areas in Idlib and Turkey will take some areas near Tal Rifat or Manbij or Kobane. This would require some support from Moscow because Moscow controls the airspace in these areas. Turkey needs to be able to use the airspace so its drones and planes can launch attacks.  

Turkey knows the SNA are reticent to sacrifice more lives in Syria. Turkey doesn’t want to be seen selling out Syrians. However it also needs a crisis to distract from economic failure at home. It also wants to send a message to Biden that it is Turkey that controls the keys to stability in Syria. In short it could be saying to Washington: Give us F-16s or we will cause you trouble in Syria. Then it tells Moscow: We want to humiliate the US-backed SDF, let us conduct some operations to do that and we will give you a win in Idlib.  

In the end Turkey wins when everyone is guessing what it wants to do and when Russia and the US have to compete for Ankara’s support. That means that it wins when others are worried about what comes next. That is why Turkey leaks information to media hinting at a new invasion and war, because it wants to dominate and drive the narrative. It has done this before, stoking chaos every month and a new crisis. Last month it threatened to expel western ambassadors when they supported a detained human rights activists. That is the “crises-a-month” strategy. Sometimes Turkey’s bragging and bullying actually does lead to Ankara mounting a military attack. Other times Turkey rattles its swords and then backs down. For instance Turkey often creates fake crises with Greece and then climbs down.

Ankara has some other issues it wants to address also. It is selling drones to Ukraine and reports say Ukraine used a Turkish drone recently. This could be a setback for Russian backed groups in the Donbas that Ukraine sees as separatists. Turkey could be in hot water with Moscow over the drone sales. But Turkey could also be hinting to Moscow that it has its fingers now in Ukraine and in the southern Caucasus and could heat things up for Russia unless Moscow bends on Ankara’s demands in Syria. Meanwhile Turkey wants to say the same thing to France regarding Libya. It may be no coincidence that open source intelligence monitors online have pointed to renewed movements by eastern Libya leader Khalifa Haftar. The Libya Observer claimed in an article that Haftar “plane lands in Israel.” It pointed to an Israeli report by Itay Blumental that tracked the plane. Nothing is known about the accuracy of these reports. What matters is that Haftar is in the news, Libya is in the news and Turkey is making noise about Syria. It may all be connected in a complex and roundabout way linking Moscow’s moves, Turkey, the US, and other countries.