Turkey's interest in Syria is more than just ousting Daesh

Turkey sees the various armed Kurdish factions as part of the same terror network



By Ilke Denizli

Published: Thu 22 Jun 2017, 10:30 PM

Last updated: Fri 23 Jun 2017, 12:31 AM

The long awaited offensive to liberate Raqqa, Daesh's self-proclaimed capital and last Syrian stronghold, has officially begun. In the early hours of June 6, the international coalition formally announced the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their Syrian Arab Coalition partners had launched the offensive following a campaign of ground assaults, with air support.

The US Central Command's accompanying press release was careful to highlight the multi-ethnic nature of the SDF and its proven record of securing towns across north-west Syria. It conveyed the SDF's message that its forces promised to hand over control to a "representative body of local civilians . [that] will provide security and governance".

Yet, for Turkey, this reassurance is not enough. For months, the Turkish leadership had launched a diplomatic campaign to secure US support for a Turkish-inclusive operation, offering to lead its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) contingents from Al Bab to Raqqa. Ankara's initial optimism about the arrival of the Trump administrative soon turned into a hard-hitting reality, as Washington affirmed the SDF's participation in the anti-Daesh effort and, in a decisive move, began distributing weapons to the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey has vowed to retaliate if it senses the Raqqa operation presents a threat to its sovereignty.

Turkey sees the various armed Kurdish factions as part of the same terror network. It regards the YPG, and other Kurdish militant groups, as extensions of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Ankara has been fighting for over three decades.

Turkey is often considered a polarised society: A catchphrase for the country's divisive ballot box. In reality, opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) encompasses a plethora of interest groups on both the political left and right. Perhaps what has most shaped the relevant use of the term today has been Turkey's role in northern Syria and, with it, the country's relationship with the region's Kurdish populations.

Turkish troops had entered Syria in August 2016, following a suspected Daesh attack on a Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep. But the tipping point arguably came after the capture of Manbij by the SDF, when groups under the SDF umbrella moved to repeat their success in then Daesh-controlled Jarablus. The state saw two potential threats to its sovereignty, and officially entered the fray. Aptly named Euphrates Shield, the military operation pushed the SDF eastward, allowing Turkey to capture Jarablus, and the gateway town of Al Bab. Amid a revived Syrian government offensive and talks with both the US and Russia, the Turkish military announced the completion of the operation in March.

While Operation Euphrates Shield may have officially ended, Turkish presence in Syria is far from over. The US decision to support the YPG seemingly emboldened the AKP, whose leadership views the Turkish buffer zone as more crucial than ever to protecting the country's interests. And few in the Turkish political sphere would dare to challenge the official rhetoric of defending the country's borders and territorial integrity. While many opposition members would challenge AKP's commitment to the peace process or criticise party's reversal of longstanding policies, few would question the legitimacy of concerns over Turkey's sovereignty.

Managing the conflict-ridden border also provides the AKP a platform for maintaining its otherwise fragile political coalition with establishment nationalists. AKP policy has thus been twofold: Continue cross-border operations against PKK targets, and establish a Syrian buffer zone with mechanisms assuring long-term Turkish oversight.

Local sources had reported the presence of several Turkish outposts across northern Aleppo province by late May, and the country's armed forces have been training FSA combatants to assume security positions since the first set of rebel relocations to Idlib province. The Turkish leadership intends to convert its temporary base in Al Bab into a military compound comprising the gendarmerie and armed forces.

Having led several reconstruction and aid efforts across the area, the country's state-run religious directorate has even set up offices in Azaz, only a short distance from the Kurdish-run Afrin canton. Reports of salaried FSA police being held to administrative standards and dismissed for noncompliance suggest that Turkey is prepared to invest time and money in the buffer zone. Since the end of Operation Euphrates Shield, there has been no scale back, and there will likely not be one for the foreseeable future.

On the contrary, as Ankara fortifies its presence in northern Syria, and imposes curfews across south-eastern Turkey, it is the responsibility of the international community to hold it accountable for its actions in order to achieve peace, without discounting the relationships that have emboldened those same policies.

- Ilke Denizli is an analyst at The Delma Institute, an international affairs research consultancy located in Abu Dhabi.



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