Turkey Flexes Muscle in Syria

by | Feb 15, 2016


The Turkish army has continued for the second day the shelling of the positions of the Syrian Kurdish militia across the border, demanding that the latter withdraw from the territories they’ve gained lately in the northern Aleppo province, especially the strategic military base of Menagh, which is vital to the supply lines from Turkey for the Syrian rebel groups.

But the Kurdish fighters are defiant and have rejected the Turkish demand. In turn, they have warned that they will resist any Turkish incursion. The Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim told Reuters that the Turkish army will find “the entire Syrian people confronting them”.

The latest reports suggest that the Kurdish militia, with Russian air cover, are encircling another strategic town of Tal Rifat close to the Turkish border. To be sure, Ankara faces a frontal challenge from the Kurdish militia who have rubbished its ‘red lines’ to the west of Euphrates and are now steadily advancing to take control of the territories straddling the Turkish border.

The Turkish objective will be to carve out a buffer zone inside Syria, which it has long advocated, ostensibly to provide for refugee camps for people fleeing the conflict zone, but in reality to gain control of the border territories and prevent the Syrian Kurds from gaining access to them.

The estimation in Ankara seems to be that while the Obama administration had so far refused to go along with the Turkish project, this may no longer be the case as a body of influential opinion in the US increasingly favors the idea. In an article in the pro-government daily Sabah on Saturday, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin strongly hinted that the US will accept as fait accompli any ‘buffer zone’ that the Turkish military might carve out inside Syrian territory.

Of course, an outright Turkish intervention will be a risky enterprise. For sure, it will meet with resistance – not only from the Syrian government forces and the Kurdish militia but also from the Hezbollah fighters operating in the Aleppo area. The big question will be as regards the Russian reaction.

Quite possibly, this explains the urgent phone call on a Sunday by US president Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin readout describes the conversation as “frank and constructive” and quotes Putin as forcefully stressing the importance of the US “renouncing double standards”. (Kremlin website)

It is entirely conceivable that Turkey is preparing for some sort of intervention in Syria. The emir of Qatar was in Istanbul to meet President Recep Erdogan on Friday; the Saudi fighter aircraft have arrived in the Incirlik air base.

Washington has expressed concern and has sought de-escalation but would know how headstrong is President Recep Erdogan who will not be easily deterred on his tracks if he sets his sights on something. The point is, Erdogan cannot watch helplessly as Turkey’s proxy groups in the Aleppo region are being systematically vanquished. The fall of Aleppo means defeat for Turkey and it will be a huge loss of prestige for Erdogan. This is the time to act since most of Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods are now under the control of the government forces and the loss of the tenuous Azaz corridor will mean Turkey loses the means to supply the rebel groups trapped within Aleppo.

On the other hand, it is improbable that the Saudis are itching to put boots on the ground in Syria. The Saudis have taken the clever stance that they are willing to deploy the troops provided the US led from the front (which they’d know is unlikely to happen.) At the end of the day, Turkey would know that the Saudis are bluffing. And it is improbable that Turkey will go it alone. (Read an insightful Iranian commentary here.)

Meanwhile, there is no let-up in operations by the Syrian Kurds and the government forces (and affiliated militia). Trust them to relentlessly pursue through the coming weeks the objective of taking full control of the border regions with Turkey. And there is little likelihood of the fierce Russian air strikes slowing down, either. The next few days are going to be most critical. Turkey is the place to watch, as Erdogan figures his way out of the swamp.

Reprinted with permission from Indian Punchline.


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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