Understanding implications of Turkey’s assault on Syria

Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the northern outskirts of the Syria as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns. (AFP photo)

Turkey began a unilateral military offensive titled ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in north-eastern Syria on October 9, 2019, to clear the border area of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The group is considered a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government. Turkey aims to create a safe zone inside Syria for the resettlement of about 2 million of 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in the country.

While Turkey calls its military operation a ‘peace spring’, the international community views it as an act of aggression that would not only aggravate the existing tensions in the Middle East region but possibly result in another humanitarian crisis complicating the Syrian quagmire.

According to UN reports some 1,30,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and “up to 4,00,000 people are expected to be displaced within and across the affected areas.”

Widespread condemnation

There has been a widespread condemnation of Turkey’s military incursion both in Europe and Middle East. An emergency meeting of the Arab League was called by Egypt on October 12, where Arab foreign ministers condemned Turkey’s military operation as an “invasion of an Arab state’s land and an aggression on its sovereignty”.

The League is said to be considering taking measures against Turkey in the economic, investment and cultural sectors. It has also called on the UN Security Council to take necessary measures for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory immediately.

France, Germany and Italy too have already expressed their concerns and condemned Ankara’s military operations. Thousands of people have denounced the Turkish military offensive during street demonstrations in France, Germany, Greece, Cyprus and Iraq.

Turkey’s continued military operations have widespread implications. In the regional context, we are likely to witness much more complexities and realignment of actors in dealing with regional conflicts and civil wars in the already divided Arab world. Despite calls by countries from the region, Europe and the UN to stop the offensive or to accept mediation, Turkey is keen on pressing ahead.

This situation is definitely not going to be very helpful in fighting the ISIS as has also been noted by the Kurdish forces and their European partners. ISIS has already claimed the responsibility for two deadly car bombs attack in Syria and declared on October 12 that it has started regrouping and planning a fresh campaign in Syria. ISIS is reported to have activated its cells in Qamishli and Hasakah as well as other areas. On Sunday, an estimated 785 women and children affiliated with ISIS were reported to have escaped a camp 50 km north of Raqqa.

Confusion aplenty

In the context of major powers’ involvement, the US position is somewhat confusing as President Donald Trump does not want to get involved in Middle East conflicts stating that the US cannot fight “endless wars”. He has defended its troop withdrawal from northern Syria saying it was too costly to keep supporting its allies. He also announced $50 million in emergency aid for Syria to support Christians and other religious minorities there.

He cautioned Turkey to “act rationally” otherwise threatened to consider moves tougher than sanctions if Ankara did not conduct the operations in as humane a way as possible. His defence secretary Mark Esper threatened Turkey with “serious consequences” after US troops stationed in Syria came under Turkish artillery fire. However, others in the US are of the opinion that abandoning of the Kurds is not a right decision as this could lead to the resurgence of the ISIS.

The Russian position has been that Syria’s territorial integrity must be preserved and all illegal foreign troops in the country should leave. From the Russian point of view the best way forward is to encourage Kurds to engage in direct dialogue with the Syrian government. They have been asking Turkey and Syria to engage in a direct dialogue in accordance with the Adana Agreement of 1998.

Abandoned by its ally, the US, and left with no option, SDF reached an agreement with the Syrian government to counter the Turkish assault. The deal reported on October 13, 2019, will allow the Syrian army to be deployed along the Syrian-Turkish border to assist the SDF. This new development would mean the return of the Syrian forces and greater hold of the Assad government on the area held by the Kurds over the course of the eight year civil war and the end of the Kurdish-led administration’s rule in Syria. This also raises the risk of direct confrontation between the Syrian government and Turkey, adding to the existing chaos that started unfolding after the US withdrawal, followed by the Turkey’s military offensive.

In terms of implications for global geopolitics, the Trump administration seems to be withdrawing from this war-torn region leaving locals and regional actors to take care of their issues while making space for Russia to play a greater role but without hurting American core interests. The new pact between the Kurds and Assad’s government provides Russia more space to manoeuvrer its influence in Syria and beyond. In this geopolitical space, China is busy crafting a cautious but strong political, security, energy and economic linkages without getting involved in the regional conflicts. It has very smartly managed support for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Turkey is an important economic partner for China.

Indian response

India has expressed its concern and stated that this action “can undermine stability in the region and the fight against terrorism.” It called upon Turkey to “exercise restraint and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria”. India’s response is understandable in the context of New Delhi’s concern about the resurgence of the ISIS and its implications not only for the region but also for Asia, Europe and Africa.

More importantly, any escalation of conflict in the region and its impact for the Gulf States and Iraq, where India has energy, economic and security stakes can’t be overlooked. This can also be analysed in the context of Ankara’s current changing foreign policy priorities, its historical pro-Pakistan position on Jammu & Kashmir and Indo-Pak disputes.

Turkey has supported Pakistan’s position on the Indian decision to revoke the special status for J&K. In OIC, where Turkey is a permanent member of the contact Group on Jammu & Kashmir (formed in 1994), it has been instrumental in issuing statements favourable to Pakistan. After the Balakot strike, Ankara rejected India’s “accusation” regarding Pakistani involvement in the Pulwama attack. In fact, Erdogan appreciated the Pakistani position. Even during UNGA 74 meeting, Erdogan raised the issue of Kashmir supporting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s position during his address.

Turkey-India ties could at best be described as lukewarm at present. President Erdogan’s support to Pakistan emanates from following factors: Erdogan’s desire to take a leadership role in the Muslim world; lack of very strong ties between India and Turkey; historical strong political and military ties between Turkey and Pakistan and India’s growing cooperation with Cyprus.

Given these factors, the scenario for the region definitely looks very bleak unless the regional actors work towards crafting fresh solution to their long-standing issues collectively. Turkey’s military operation has definitely opened a new front in an already complex Syrian quagmire.

(Meena Singh Roy is Research Fellow and Coordinator, West Asia Centre, IDSA)

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