Turkey’s Grand Stand in the Syrian War


EditorialCartoonBy Edmond Y. Azadian

Every time the war in Syria intensifies and new developments emerge, pundits suggest that the conflict has peaked and that it can only de-escalate from that stage. Yet time and again, the pundits are disproved because a new and unimaginable turn for the worse takes place.

The key to solving the Syrian crisis, it seems, is control of the beleaguered, besieged and divided city of Aleppo, where the remnants of the Armenian community remain trapped. The consensus on all fronts is that whichever side wins Aleppo will win the war.

Despite the intensified bombing by the Syrian government forces and its allies on the one hand and the so-called rebel forces backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West on the other hand, little movement has been recorded in any direction.

After five years of fighting and almost 500,000 in casualties, the war continues to rage, with no end in sight.

On August 24, Turkey’s massive invasion of Syria introduced new dynamics and a new twist in the war. All along, Turkey was planning to carve out a security zone in Syria, encouraged by people such as John McCain and Hilary Clinton and opposed by President Barack Obama. Of course, each party had its own agenda in creating a no-fly zone. The US would limit or deny the actions of Russian and Syrian air forces, while Turkey was itching to halt the advances of the Kurdish forces, which were about to carve out their own autonomous enclave along the Turkish border.

Until recently, Ankara was restrained in its desire to enter the war theater full force, first, because it had its own selfish agenda of settling scores with the Syrian Kurds, while paying lip service to the West, pretending to fight ISIS in Syria.

The US found the most reliable fighters in the Kurdish forces and supplied them with arms and logistics to conquer territory from ISIS, infuriating Turkey.

After shooting down the Russian warplane, Turkey did not dare to move within a few miles of Syria, afraid to risk a war with Russia.

But how did the dramatic change come about for the Turkish forces to be welcomed on Syrian territory?

It is said that diplomacy is the art of the possible but also sometimes it is a gamble in opportunism. You may take whatever theory you like, but the Turks played their diplomatic card masterfully to attain their goal.

After some arrogant grandstanding vis-à-vis Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg earlier this month to sell him a bill of goods. First, he apologized for shooting down the Russian fighter plane and then he mended fences with Russia, which had retaliated forcefully against Turkey, by halting all tourist flights to that country and placing a ban on the import of Turkish agricultural products.

Those sanctions shook up the Turkish economy badly. Then Erdogan sold his intangible assets to Putin: his inflated anger against the US for hosting cleric Fettulah Gulen and the insinuation that the US played a role in the attempted coup. Putin did not miss the opportunity to create a crack in the NATO alliance.

While Erdogan was adamantly opposing Bashar al-Assad’s remaining in power, he began soft-peddling the issue, coming to John Kerry’s conclusion that Assad was not the primary goal in Syria, but that ISIS was.

Right after Erdogan’s return to Ankara, Russian charter flights to Turkey resumed. And this time around, the invasion of Turkish forces in Syria only raised a mild “concern” in Moscow while the Syrian government characterized the move as “a violation of its sovereignty.”

Erdogan’s embrace of Putin raised alarms in Washington that a valuable NATO member was breaking ranks from the alliance. Thus, Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Ankara to receive a diplomatic cold shoulder and to apologize to Erdogan for arriving late to express his own sentiments and those of President Obama about the coup attempt.

This formal humiliation was also accompanied by a political shift in the Syrian war theater. As stated in a New York Times article, “the new fighting pits the two American-backed Syrian forces against each other: the rebel groups aided by the CIA and allied intelligence agencies and the Kurdish-led militias that work with the Pentagon, under an umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

The Turkish land and air forces, assisted by their Syrian surrogates, occupied Jarabulus from ISIS in an operation called Euphrates Shield. The US ordered the Kurdish forces to move to the east of the Euphrates River, essentially ceding territory that they had overtaken from ISIS. Otherwise, the US threatened to deny arms to the group.

The New York Times article, dated August 29, continued, “The most powerful Syrian Kurdish party is reeling from what its supporters see as an American betrayal after the United States gave the green light to Turkey to send tanks and allied rebels into Northern Syria.”

The Kurds were not only betrayed by the US, but they were also betrayed by their own brethren. Indeed, during this turmoil, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, flew to Ankara to shake hands with Erdogan and vowed to fight along Turkey against ISIS and the PKK.

Turkey has bribed the Iraqi Kurdistan by offering business opportunities and by buying directly oil from the Kurds against the objections of the central government.

Ankara also extends diplomatic visits to Kurdistan, bypassing the authorities in Baghdad. Kurdistan, supported by Turkey and Israel, has become the safest and most peaceful region in Iraq. Armenians have also found a safe haven there and participate in the government.

For Iran, which has at best a marriage of convenience with the Syrian Kurds, this does not create a concern, since Tehran has its own Kurdish problem at home.

Kurds have been betrayed many times in history. Even the Sevres Treaty of 1920 had promised territory and independence to them, like the Armenians, and again, like the Armenians, that dream was also shattered.

In view of all the betrayals the Kurds have a saying: “The Kurds don’t have any friends except their mountains.”

Although in today’s technological warfare that idea is also reduced to an academic concept.

A strategic development in the Syria may have consequences for Armenia by reducing tis importance as an ally as Iran offers its Hamadan base for Russia to conduct raids on Syria.

President Putin recently stated that Russia wishes sincerely to improve relations with Turkey. Historically, any rapprochement between Turkey and Russia has taken place at Armenia’s expense. Turkey is leaning on Russia to break loose from the American embrace and Mr. Putin seems to welcome that tendency, whose outcome may undermine US influence in the Caucasus. The development of that trend will certainly concern Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, all of whom vie for primacy in the region.

Turkey has played all its diplomatic cards to make its grand stand in the Syrian war theater. The move will enhance Turkey’s position in the region to the detriment of the Syrian people, especially Christian communities in that country. Turkey’s move will allow Ankara an independent voice in the final settlement of the war in Syria. But where is the end?