President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday (25/06) dismissed calls for Turkey to close a military base in Qatar and said a wider list of demands issued by four Arab states was an unlawful intervention against the Gulf emirate's sovereignty. (Reuters Photo/Sergei Karpukhin)

Assad, Islamic State Also Win in Erdogan’s Syrian Drive: Jamil Maidan Flores


SEPTEMBER 07, 2016

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on a roll. And it shows in the success — so far — of his foray into Syria.

A Turkish military force is now firmly ensconced in northern Syria, in Jarabulus town, governorate of Aleppo. Some 350 Turkish soldiers, including 150 Special Forces troops and about two dozen tanks are there supporting some 1,500 fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), some of them natives of the area, occupying Jarabulus. There will have to be reinforcements from Turkey as the battle situation in the area evolves in the weeks ahead.

Until recently, the Islamic State movement held the town for about two years. Because Jarabulus was so near the border, President Erdogan deemed IS presence there a serious threat to national security, but for many months he could not do anything about it.

Things changed in the small hours of the morning of Aug. 24 when the United States and Turkish warplanes bombarded IS positions in the town, softening them for an assault by Turkish tanks and soldiers and FSA fighters. The IS jihadists showed token resistance, booby-trapped the whole town, and then withdrew. By sunset, the town was in the hands of FSA fighters and the Turkish military.

A few months ago, the Turkish siege of Jarabulus would have been foolhardy if possible at all. The Turkish military was not keen on crossing the border to fight the IS; it was distracted by the Kurdish insurgency within the country. And if they did cross over, they might have been given a fiery welcome by Russian warplanes bent on protecting Putin’s client, the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. They would have also incurred the ire of Iran since Assad is also under Iranian protection.

Even the US would not have looked kindly on such an incursion. Upon crossing the border, any Turkish military force would instinctively go after every Kurdish fighter found in the area. There are two Kurdish groups operating there: first is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish ethnic organization struggling for autonomy in Turkey. Second is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by ethnic Kurds. Both are regarded by the US as its most effective allies in the fight against

What made it possible for Turkey to plunge into Syria? Obviously, Erdogan carried out some skillful diplomacy before launching the offensive. First, he ate humble pie and went to the Kremlin to mend his frayed relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He made an act of contrition for Turkish jets shooting down a Russian Sukhoi months ago.

The two did not become best friends forever but Erdogan must have at least convinced the Russian strongman that the projected Turkish incursion into Syria would not at all hurt Putin’s fair-haired boy, Assad. On that basis, Putin must have agreed to tolerate the incursion.

As to Iran, Erdogan must have found a way of also communicating to the region’s greatest Shiite power that the projected incursion would not endanger Assad, who professes the Alawite faith, a variation of Shia Islam. This could have happened as early as last April when Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani called on President Erdogan in the wake of the summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul where Arab countries rebuked Iran for its role in regional conflicts, including in Syria and Yemen.

That was a time when Iran particularly needed a Muslim friend and found him in the person of Erdogan.

And the US? By falling into the embrace of Putin, Erdogan gave the US and their NATO allies something to worry about. On top of that, rumors were rife in Turkey that the US secretly supported the failed coup against the Erdogan government last month. Because most of those involved in the failed coup were followers of religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who is living in self-exile in Pennsylvania, Turkey demanded his extradition. Since there was no direct evidence linking Gulen to the coup, the US refused. That only deepened the rift between US and Turkey.

So the US urgently needed to present Erdogan with a peace offering. Thus it agreed that US warplanes would help provide air cover for the Turkish forces crossing the border toward Jarabulus. Just before the siege, codenamed Euphrates Shield, US Vice President Joe Biden flew to Ankara to announce American support and assurances that US-allied YPG fighters would withdraw to east of the Euphrates river as demanded by Turkey, or they risk losing American support.

What more could Erdogan wish for? When he ordered the Turkish military to charge across the border, the latter, chastened by the purge that followed the failed coup, promptly obeyed. He was now in firm control of the military. And when it was clear that the invading force had seized Jarabulus, Russia merely said it was “deeply concerned,” and then looked the other way. Iran hasn’t been heard from. The main body of US-allied YPG fighters dutifully retreated to east of the Euphrates. And Vice President Biden could go back home to attend to the more enjoyable task of mocking Donald Trump.

But there is a deadly kink in the situation. Not all Kurdish fighters withdrew to east of Euphrates: there remained in the Jarabulus area a group affiliated to the Kurd-dominated SDF. Herein lies the confusion: when the US talks of the YPG, it means only the YPG but when Erdogan refers to the YPG, he means the YPG and SDF. As far as Erdogan is concerned, the deal has not been fulfilled, for although part of the YPG retreated to east of Euphrates, much of it — in the form of the SDF — still remained in Jarabulus. Inevitably, new fighting broke out this time between the Turkish military plus FSA fighters and the SDF.

In this new fighting, Kurdish fighters, as well as civilians, have taken dozens of casualties. Three SDF fighters have been captured by the FSA. The Turks have so far lost one tank and one soldier laid low by a rocket.

Here is the ultimate irony: the SDF is backed by the US military, the FSA by the C.I.A. Whoever wins, the US loses. That is why US Defense Secretary Carter Ashton in the Pentagon has sternly called on Turkey to stop this internecine fighting and focus on battling the IS.

What Turkey is trying to do in Syria is to prevent the Kurds from consolidating the territories they gained from battling the IS. It is single-minded about stopping the Kurds from gaining so much territory that they can effectively link up with the Kurdish forces fighting the government inside Turkey. If it mauls the IS in the process, that will be a bonus.

The IS fighters were wise to give only token resistance in Jarabulus and then disappear from the scene. Why fight when you can watch your enemies kill each other?

The bottom line is that while Erdogan won big in his foray into Syria, the bigger winners could eventually be the IS in Syria and Assad sitting pretty and safe in his palace in Damascus. One silver lining to the storm clouds is that the Turkish-Syrian borders are now undoubtedly closed to fighters from Southeast Asia trying to get into the battle area to join IS.

Meanwhile, the endless civil war sputters on in a chaotic mishmash of friends and enemies.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at