Turkey’s Complicated Game in Syrian
Turkish President Erdogan and the Turkish parliament have authorized a change in the rules of engagement to allow the Turkish army to strike at ISIS as well as the Assad regime, according to Turkish newspapers. The aim is to establish a buffer zone for refugees and against ISIS.
While this might, at first blush, be welcomed by America, Erdogan has also suggested that the main target of the intervention, if it goes ahead, will be to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s doorstep. “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south,” Erdogan said last weekend. “We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.”
Up to this point in time, Turkey has refused to act unilaterally in Syria. That changed earlier this week after a meeting of their national security council.
According to reports, the Turkish Army is preparing to send an 18,000-strong force across the border, with some reports saying the move could take place as early as today.
The troops would seize a stretch of territory 60 miles long by 20 deep, including the border crossings of Jarablus, currently in ISIS hands, and Aazaz, currently controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but under attack from ISIS.
Reports indicate that Turkey will first try to get diplomatic support of its NATO allies and US-led coalition forces. Failing that, “Plan B” will come into plan, and Turkey will create a buffer zone on its own, and will train and equip the Free Syrian Army.
The creation of a buffer zone would allow Turkey to stop the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey by setting up refugee camps within Syria, but protected by Turkey. The buffer zone would also allow them to control the flow of munitions into Syria.
However, there is another domestic reason for the move – controlling Kurdish desires for an independent state. The move would prevent the two current zones of Kurdish control – from Kobane to the Iraq border in the east, and Afrin in the west – from joining up. Erdogen is hostile to any independent Kurdish state – even in Syria because it would inspire Kurdish demands for independence from Turkey. In addition, the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG) is an offshoot of the PKK guerrilla group which has fought for autonomy in south-eastern Turkey for four decades.
Turkey was shocked by the recent victories by Kurdish militias in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa province, especially the seizure of the town of Tal Abyad, which is right on Turkey’s border.
However, political goals aren’t always best achieved with military force. The Turkish army is not eager to invade Syria, where it may find itself quickly bogged down in a war without any hope of winning it.
Another problem is domestic politics since a coalition government hasn’t been put in place. Obviously, any move to limit Kurdish gains in Syria will be opposed by the Kurdish Party, which won 80 seats in the last election.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) second-in-command and acting military leader, Murat KarayÕlan, has said that if Turkey intervenes in the Kurdish-majority area in northeastern Syria, the PKK will turn the entire country into a warzone.
This threat has to be taken seriously. On Tuesday there was a clash between PKK fighters and the Turkish army after an attack on the Daglica military base in the Hakkari province. The Ankara Chiefs of Staff say that the mortar and machine gun attack in which no one was injured had been launched on Monday evening. The new agency Dogan reports that bombs have been dropped by Turkish jets in retaliation in the Daglica area, where groups of PKK fighters are allegedly hiding.
However, the opposition doesn’t end with the Kurds. There is opposition to the operation being approved by the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who is only still in place because of difficulties forming a coalition.
The intervention would also be opposed by the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP), which blames Erdogan for making the Syrian war worse by supporting Islamist rebels rather than using his influence to negotiate peace.
“There is not sufficient reason to send Turkish troops to Syria,” said Faruk Logoglu, who until the election was head of the CHP’s foreign affairs committee. “Once you do that there is no way out.”
Turkey isn’t the only nation looking at securing its border with Syria. Jordan is also looking at creating a buffer zone in Southern Syria. The Syrian government is currently in nominal control of these provinces. But a coordinated rebel offensive, consisting in large part of fighters from the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, has sparked concern in Jordan that a full-scale Syrian withdrawal from the area could occur, provoking chaos along the border.
Jordan worries that jihadists could establish a permanent foothold along the country’s border with Syria, or use the area for attacks inside Jordan. The zone of control would likely include the Syrian city of Deraa, and would be manned by US and Jordan-supported “moderate” rebels along with more direct Jordanian military support.
Although Turkey has indicated it will ask for NATO and coalition help before acting unilaterally, it is unlikely to get full support from them. There are too many differing goals between Turkey and its western and regional allies – one being the American desire to keep a powerful Kurdish force in play against ISIS.
The question is if, and how, the US will support these incursions into Syria. In the case of Turkey, US/Turkish relations haven’t been the best in recent years and although the US might welcome some stability in the Syrian Civil War, the domestic aspects of the Turkish invasion would worry the Obama Administration, which has a good relationship with the Iraqi Kurds.
Another problem is that although Jordan and Turkey might be planning the same type of operation, their relationship with the Kurds is quite different. “Kurdistan has had historical ties with the Kingdom of Jordan since the times of late General Mullah Mustafa Barzani and King Hussein bin Talal,” said Falah Mustafa, head of Erbil’s Department of Foreign Relations in Iraqi Kurdistan. “This relationship has continued and there is an increased interest from both sides to further enhance relations.”
Royal Jordanian Airlines flies to Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan was one of the first countries to open a full consulate in the Kurdish capital in 2010.
Clearly, cooperation between Jordan and Turkey in this operation would be minimal.
This leaves the US in a difficult situation. It also limits what it is willing to do.
From an American point of view, Turkey can carry out its part of the operation with little help. The Assad regime will tend to ignore any Turkish incursion since it will be designed to weaken two of its enemies, ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish militia. This means the American Air Force will not be needed for an air superiority role. And, although Turkey might like some American assistance, its large army and air force can handle the operation with little outside assistance.
While Turkey is a NATO ally, Jordan will probably receive the most American assistance as its current relationship with Washington is better. The Jordanian Army will require greater logistics and military assistance in securing its buffer zone. And, it can expect more humanitarian assistance.
Assistance to Jordan would likely include increased shipments of munitions and the deployment of additional Special Forces. Some of the assistance might even be funded by Saudi Arabia or other GCC nations. There would likely be some US air support – either manned aircraft for tactical missions and as a guarantor of any no-fly zone imposed by Jordan.
It’s likely that Jordan will also receive assistance from Israel, which is anxious to limit the development of radical militias in southern Syria, especially on its border. In fact, there are reports that Israel wants to become more active in the war under the guise of protecting the Druze communities along the border.
Assistance to Turkey would likely be limited in such a way that it wouldn’t hinder the Kurds. This would include intelligence on ISIS movements and even some air strikes against ISIS targets. But, it is unlikely to help enforce a Turkish no fly zone.
At this time, the Obama Administration has made it clear that it has no interest in ground operations in Syria – either in Jordan or Turkey (although some US Special Forces will likely be engaged in operations in and around Jordan).
The Future of the Buffer Zones
Although Jordan and Turkey see some benefit to establishing buffer zones in Syria, the long term success of these operations remains in question.
Jordan could in some scenarios is likely to see its operation succeed as it has more limited goals – to keep ISIS and al Qaeda militias from the Jordanian border. In that, it will have the tacit assistance of Syria and Israel.
Turkey’s goals are complicated by its domestic political goal of hindering Kurdish militias. With the last election, the Kurds have become a more potent domestic political force and any fighting with the Kurds could make hopes of a Turkish coalition government harder. This might lead to early elections and might hurt Erdogan’s party more than last month’s elections.
Turkey is also fragmenting the war on ISIS. While it is eager to keep ISIS from its borders and out of Syria, it is hindering the Kurds, the most potent anti-ISIS military force in the region.
If Turkey decides to invade Syria, it could find itself in a long term insurgency against al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Kurds. A victory by Turkey would entail defeating all three – a near impossibility, since defeating one of them, would mean the other two would be in a stronger position.
While there may be pressure from some political corners to help Turkey (Senator McCain being the most likely advocate), Obama would be best served to limit any active role with the Turkish operation. It would only complicate his current efforts to defeat ISIS in Iraq.
Understanding Tyranny and Terror: From the French Revolution to Modern Islamism
By Waller R. Newell
June 30, 2015
Across the world, we are witnessing both a heroic struggle for democracy and the disturbing strength of tyrannical regimes and movements. Whether it is civil war in Syria, Russian aggression, or the threat of ISIS, democracy and tyranny are in a dead heat.
While American forces are now engaged against Jihadism in the Middle East, self-identified Muslim terrorists are conducting brutal attacks on American soil. Yet President Barack Obama, while condemning “terror” in general terms, avoids the term “Islamist terrorism” and even assures us that ISIS, which aims to establish a worldwide Caliphate, “is not Islamic.” How should the West respond? Do we understand the nature of these adversaries?
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By A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner
June 24, 2014
Earlier this year, the millennial generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 1997) overtook the baby boomers as the largest generation of Americans alive today. As such, they are poised to have a big impact on the 2016 elections, and the oldest millennials, now 35, are starting to occupy important leadership positions in the private and public sector. In our recent study, published by the Cato Institute and based on an analysis of a wide range of polling data, we find that millennials share a distinct set of foreign policy attitudes, compared with their elders. They view the world as less threatening, are more supportive of international cooperation and diplomacy, and are far more averse to the use of military force. Surprisingly, despite the fact that 9/11 is the defining event of their generation, the data suggest millennials see the world as a less dangerous place than their elders. Compared with other generations, millennials are less worried about international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 25, 2015
It’s not hard to find Americans who want a victory over the Islamic state. The hard part is finding any with a good sense of what victory would look like. The late Justice Potter Stewart’s famous description of hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it,” isn’t very helpful. It’s especially unhelpful because there have been so many moments in the last 15 years when it looked like the battle against religiously inspired extremism in the Arab world had been won. After Saddam Hussein fell in 2003, there was a self-satisfied feeling in Washington that freedom was nigh in the Middle East, and that liberalism (in the classical sense, and most certainly not in the U.S. political sense) would soon follow. When uprisings spread throughout the Middle East in 2011, commentators suggested that the events would marginalize extremists, who had argued that change could only come at the end of a gun. When Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, another turning point seemed upon us.
Near to a nuclear deal, Iran grapples with bigger headaches
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
July 1, 2015
As the world is focusing on the yet-again extended nuclear talks, Iranian leaders are expressing ever greater concerns about the perceived threats from ISIS and Saudi Arabia. How Tehran may respond, including deploying ground forces in Iraq, should give everyone pause. Positive on the talks. The Iranian leadership appears quite content with waiting until July 7 to conclude a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1. All the angst over Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s reiteration two weeks ago of old redlines (immediate sanctions relief, no military inspections) and seemingly new ones (uranium enrichment will not be restricted for ten to twelve years) appears to have been unwarranted, as expected. The mostly upbeat reports coming out of the Vienna negotiations do not indicate Tehran has shifted from the basic parameters in the April 2 Lausanne agreement to restrict enrichment for at least ten years
The Islamic State’s Strategy: Lasting and Expanding
By Lina Khatib
June 29, 2015
The self-proclaimed Islamic State is a hybrid jihadist group with a declared goal of establishing a “lasting and expanding” caliphate. Its strategy for survival and growth blends military, political, social, and economic components. Yet the U.S.-led international intervention against it has largely been limited to air strikes. The gaps in the international coalition’s approach as well as deep sectarian divisions in Iraq and the shifting strategies of the Syrian regime and its allies are allowing the Islamic State to continue to exist and expand. Understanding the Islamic State: The Islamic State faces significant internal challenges, including grievances about its brutality and unpredictable ruling behavior, a limited governance capacity, and tensions between foreigners and locals within its ranks. The Islamic State’s military approach has evolved over time, from an emphasis on offensive warfare to more defensive operations and, more recently, to attempts to take advantage of its enemies’ political and military weaknesses, as it did in mid-2015 with advances in Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq.
The Threat of New Al-Qaeda Leadership: The Case of Syria’s Abu Mohammed Al-Joulani
By Jennifer Cafarella
Institute for the Study of War
June 30, 2015
The death of al-Qaeda’s general manager, Nasir al-Wahayshi, will likely disrupt al-Qaeda’s global operations until he is replaced. It is likely that al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri will nominate his replacement according to traditional leadership patterns, choosing, for example, a former companion of Osama bin Laden. It is dangerous but plausible, however, that Zawahiri will seek to maximize the influence of newer al-Qaeda leaders who have proven their qualifications on the battlefield in order to shepherd the reemergence of a reinvigorated and highly resilient global al-Qaeda organization with a leadership structure that is embedded within local affiliates. One possible candidate for future al-Qaeda leadership is Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. If al-Qaeda shifts away from its current reliance on a core cadre of eligible members for leadership, the U.S. must fundamentally adjust its current paradigm for limited counterterror operations in the effort to disrupt and eventually defeat al-Qaeda.
Egypt’s Evolving Salafi Bloc: Puritanism and Pragmatism in an Unstable Region
By Jacob Olidort
June 30, 2015
As Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s government engages with nearby threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — first, from the group’s Sinai Province and, later, from its Libyan satellite — the country’s Salafi political parties have diverged on whether or not to entrench more deeply with the secular military regime to ensure their survival, a move that could entail compromising on doctrines and allegiances with other domestic Islamic groups. Ultimately, with Arab states banding together to confront perceived sources of the region’s spiraling instability, Salafi groups will be forced to choose between security partnership and ideological puritanism. In other words, to win credibility with the Sisi regime and Egyptian voters, Salafi parties will need to demonstrate that they represent the interests of both, even if those interests conflict with aspects of Salafi ideology or could isolate them from other Islamist parties.
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By Ghaith al-Omari
June 25, 2015
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