PHOTO: Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, January 31, 2016
Is Turkey preparing to act unilaterally to support Syrian rebels, defying years of American reticence, as it faces both Kurdish and foreign-led regime offensives changing the situation in northern Syria along the Turkish border?
A newspaper close to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has called for a break with the US over the Syrian crisis, if Washington is “unwilling or unable to lead” for a resolution of the conflict.
Daily Sabah, established in 2014 to support the AKP, makes the argument in a lengthy editorial on Tuesday, citing Russia’s military intervention and the advance of the Kurdish militia YPG against rebels in northwest Syria:
In the wake of the most recent developments, Turkey and others need to show that they mean business. Obviously, the Turkish government should consult with its allies before taking future steps in Syria and make sure that its actions are legitimate….But meaningful action does not have to be unilateral.
At a time when the US would rather focus on presidential primaries at home than crimes against humanity committed in the Middle East, the international coalition needs to rise to the challenge and question American leadership of the anti-Daesh [Islamic State] campaign, which effectively let Russia hijack the international counter-terror agenda.
Provided that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is unwilling or unable to lead, countries actively fighting Daesh should throw their weight behind the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria by Turkey and its allies — the only concrete proposal seeking to keep terrorists away and stem the westward movement of refugees.
In the past two weeks, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have signaled that they might step up their intervention in Syria. After declaring that it would put in ground troops at the invitation of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS, Riyadh is sending warplanes and troops to the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey. From last Saturday, the Turkish military has been shelling positions in northern Aleppo Province — notably the Menagh airbase — taken by Kurdish-led forces from rebels.
However, the measures have neither checked the flight of at least 70,000 Syrians — and the prospect of many more — towards the Turkish border, nor halted the advances by the Kurdish YPG and the regime-Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian offensive. On Monday, the two sides took the town of Tal Rifaat and several villages from rebels.
Turkey’s Limits on Its “Red Lines”
Even as Daily Sabah is calling for a stand against the US, its editorial points to limits on Turkey’s moves over Syria.
There is no call for any immediate measures to halt the Kurdish attacks on rebels, which may have decisively turned the battle for northern Aleppo, let alone the Russian bombing that has enabled the foreign-led regime offensive. No substance is given to the call for the safe zone across northwest Syria, proposed by Ankara since last summer but rejected by the US: there is no explanation for how it will be implemented and enforced.
Instead, Daily Sabah is pointing to a longer-term effort to mobilize opinion against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political umbrella for the YPG militia:
Even if the world really liked the story of freedom-loving, eco-friendly freedom fighters at some point, the time has come to acknowledge that the PYD’s strategy serves the best interests of Russia, Daesh, and the Assad regime, not the Syrian people.
At this point, leadership means the PYD must choose between the international coalition and an unholy alliance of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. This is the only way to realign the group into playing a constructive role in Syria instead of serving as mercenaries in a bloody proxy war.
Yet if the PYD/YPG are successful — in an effective alliance of interests with Russia and the Assad regime — in establishing a de facto area of control across northwest Syria, it is unclear what Turkey’s call for harsher rhetoric can achieve.
Turkey may believe that it can establish that the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK — labelled as a “terrorist organization” not only by Ankara, but also by the US and the European Union — is the effective leader of the PYD. However, so far Washington has been unmoved: it has maintained the dual position of assuring Turkey that it supports Ankara’s operations against the PKK while the US military supplies the PYD/YPG with arms, ammunition, and special forces for America’s preferred fight against the Islamic State.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s vocal signals this month that it is ready to step up involvement may also be covering a policy of caution. Commentators close to the Saudi monarchy have indicated that direct intervention is still contingent on a measure of American support. In his latest interview, prominent columnist Jamal Khashoggi has indicated that “small operations may expand”, but that there is no prospect of Yemen-style aerial and ground action.
For now, Turkey’s “red line” for its military operations appears to be control of Azaz, the border town important for movement of men and supplies throughout the Syrian civil war. Turkish shelling of Kurdish positions was sparked by the YPG’s attack on Azaz last Friday, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu repeated on Monday that Ankara will not tolerate Kurdish control of the town, despite continued Russian bombing of the area.
More Arms — and Meaningful Arms — to the Rebels?
The bigger question is still whether Turkey and Saudi Arabia will respond with significant supplies of arms to the rebels, so that territory can be defended against the Russian aerial onslaught as well as the Kurdish and regime ground offensives.
For months, Ankara and Riyadh have hesitated to provide such support. In large part, that was because of a tacit agreement to let US Secretary of State John Kerry pursue his dream of a political resolution by this spring. Rather than confronting Washington with a bolstered rebel force, Riyadh hosted the formation of the opposition-rebel bloc for negotiations — even though both the Turks and the Saudis were skeptical that the process would yield results.
That skepticism has been vindicated, with the Assad regime bluntly refusing any substantial negotiations and Russia backing up that line with its bombing of civilian sites as well as rebel positions.
Yet the Turks and Saudis continue to hesitate. The most important possibility — anti-air weapons to the rebels — is still blocked by the Americans, despite any criticism by Turkish and Saudi outlets. Supply of anti-tank weapons, which has had a limited resumption, is likely to be too little and too late to save any northern Aleppo positions outside Azaz.
Instead, there is likely to be a re-evaluation by both Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Given that the US is unlikely to break from its de facto diplomatic alliance with Russia, will the two countries back the remaining major area of rebel control in Idlib Province? Or are they prepared to watch it also erode, while the opposition faces a siege of its sections of a divided Aleppo city?