Erdogan’s chutzpah

Turkey’s military operation in Syria is a major strategic gamble which can alter alignment of forces in the region, writes Iftikhar Gilani

Erdogan’s chutzpah
In the foothills of Aqra mountains, located on the Syrian–Turkish border, golden wheat fields have transformed into a sight from hell with constant fires from artillery and rattling of guns. The aroma of wheat is now mixed with gunpowder. Farmers who were planning harvest have fled for their lives. Helicopter gunships and bombers are zooming past in search of targets. Alert soldiers are moving along the historic Konya-Baghdad railway tracks, once part of Hijaz railways, a 19th century equivalent of modern-day China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

After a US National Security document was made public, which detailed a plan to handover this largely Arab-dominated territory to Kurds to acknowledge the help they extended to US forces to dislodge Islamic State terrorists from the region, it was evident that Turkey will not allow carving out of such a territory so close to its orders. Countering this proposal, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested creation of a 32 kilometres deep and 480 kilometres long area running along its border as a “safe zone” to settle three million Syrian refugees camped in Turkey.

Soon after World War I, when the UK and France carved out territories under the 1916 Skyes-Picot Agreement in the Middle East by fragmenting the Turkish Ottoman Empire, they distributed the Kurdish ethnic population in five countries - Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Armenia and Iraq. Though largely Muslim, the 25-30 million Kurds also include Christians, Parsis, Yezedis, Jews, Asranis and Yasamis. Since they are mostly pitted against Muslim nations, be they Iranians, Turks or Arabs, western powers have often used them against rulers who lost their favour.

When Saddam Hussain was to be taught a lesson, a rebellion of Kurds in the South was engineered. An identical game was played in Turkey, Syria and Iran. When the ruler mended fences with the west, Kurds were left in a lurch. In the latest case, some Kurdish groups and their leaders, designated as terrorists in Iraq for fighting against an American-friendly government, are privileged freedom fighters in Syria, from where they also allegedly launch attacks inside Turkey.

Erdogan highlighted this forked policy of the West, when he announced launch of operations. When he came to power in 2003, he had attempted to mainstream Kurds by allowing their political front - Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) - to contest elections and even shared power with them. The PDP currently has 62 MPs in the Turkish parliament. But the honeymoon did not last long.

When the short-lived Arab Spring was making waves across Middle East, the Syrian opposition also attempted to dislodge Bashar al-Assad’s government. Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt and Erdogan supported the opposition. Morsi was soon dislodged from power. Erdogan continued support to the Syrian opposition. Assad used an iron first to clamp down on protesters and they later formed a military wing called the Free Syrian Army, which was soon at the doors of Damascus, taking over vast swath of territory. This coincided with the emergence of Daesh in Mosul in 2014, which also began operations in Syria. Iranian Revolutionary Guards scrambled a Shia militia Hashad al Shabi in the name of protecting holy Shia sites of Karbala and Najaf from the dreaded Sunni terrorists. They successfully halted the march of Daesh which had nearly reached Baghdad.

In Syria, Iran and Russia plunged into war to save Assad. Their alliance pushed back the Free Syrian Army, which was now facing the brunt from Daesh in the North as well. Several of its commanders were apprehended and killed by Daesh. Then, the last actor - the US - also joined the war in the name of fighting Daesh and ejecting Assad from power to help a democratic transition in Syria.

Curiously, instead of taking help from the regular army of its NATO ally, Turkey, the US transported Kurd fighters from Iraq and other places to provide ground support. Sources from Turkey say that the US plan drafted by former Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis had offered to hand over fertile lands on the east of Euphrates River to Kurds and evict the Arab population in the region. But it is believed that President Donald Trump not only vetoed the proposal, but by withdrawing the US military from the region, he indirectly endorsed Turkey’s military adventure and the safe zone proposal. Since the Free Syrian Army had gone defunct, days before Turkey launched its operation, 18 Syrian opposition groups came together to form Syrian National Army to fight the Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Army.

During the Syrian crises, Israel had by and large remained neutral. But off late, it has openly led support to Kurdish territory in Syria along the Turkish border. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son launched a hashtag on twitter #FreeKurdistan. Turkey had conducted a similar operation in 2016 and 2018, vacating areas of Jarablus and Aafrin from militant groups to allow 300,000 refugees to return to their homes. But it didn’t raise hackles of either Israel or the West.

Ednan Abu Amir, an expert on Middle East, affairs believes that Israel has been purchasing 75 percent of its oil requirements from the Kurds in Iraq. In return, it is helping Kurds in telecommunication and various security issues. Israeli leaders believe that Jews and Kurds are only two minorities in the region who were without a nation. While Jews got Israel, Kurds are still craving for a homeland. Intelligence sources say that Israel had used Kurd territories to launch an attack on Iran-backed militias in Iraq in July. Two Israeli ministers, Gilard Erdan and Ayelet Shaked have come out strongly in support of Kurds, demanding right to self-determination for the ethnic community. Over the years, Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds, viewing the minority ethnic group as a buffer against shared adversaries.

These developments had rattled Turkey, which believed that the West was bent on creating an Israel like territory on its borders. Another issue on Erdogan’s mind could have been recent drubbing of his ruling AKP in the Istanbul mayor polls. The secular nationalist opposition, CHP, used the refugee card to the hilt against Erdogan, saying they were feeding on Turk resources, and even blamed them for economic recession. Ahead of presidential elections, scheduled in 2023, Erdogan is planning to drive out Syrian refugees and settle them along the border in Syrian territory, to maintain a balance between his international Muslim friendly image and to appease Turk voters.

Analysts believe that while President Trump supported Erdogan by going against his own establishment, reactions of Russia and Iran were muted. They fear extending operations beyond the limited objective will be loaded with risks. Already Kurds abandoned by the US have struck a deal with the Syrian government, marking a major shift in the country’s eight-year war. Syrian troops are advancing north towards the border to confront Turkish forces.

These developments in the Middle East have proven two things; first, Erdogan has the capacity to execute warnings and that the US is an unreliable ally. In 1991, US President George Bush Senior appealed to Kurds and Shias in Iraq in a televised speech to rebel against dictator Saddam Hussain. They took his word seriously and came out on the streets. But Hussain ruthlessly suppressed them, even used chemical weapons to teach them a lesson. The US watched and confined itself to issuing condemnations. Former US President Richard Nixon writes in his memories, while mentioning the death of Pakistan military dictator President Ziaul Haq: “My thoughts went out that it is dangerous to befriend America. It is better to be neutral and even safer to be enemy of America than a friend.”

The writer is a journalist based in Turkey