Yavuz Baydar
Jan 23 2018

Turkey’s Afrin quagmire

What is obvious even to the most pru­dent observers is that Turkey’s foreign policy is muddled. The more willingness Ankara displays to flex its muscles in the region, the less evident its strategic wisdom becomes.

What remains is a series of hasty moves, mostly tactical. By the very nature of its foreign policy, Ankara appears unpredictable and vulner­able.

A dramatic example is the es­calation with the mainly Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, which is emerging as the epicen­tre of a violent conflict. After the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria with the help of the combat forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Turkey faces the regional Kurdish reality even more forcefully, while it continues to refuse its existence within its borders.

For the Syrian Kurds, Afrin as part of Rojava represents the dream of self-rule. Syrian Kurds’ political and militia groups act with the full knowledge that either Rus­sia or the United States will likely somehow stand behind them and their demands as part of their ef­forts to bring peace to the country.

This is the muddle Turkey’s rul­ing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its military establish­ment have been stuck in for some time.

A ground incursion in Afrin means not only facing an armed-to-the-teeth Kurdish militia but bold manoeuvring between the two major players in Syria: Washington and Moscow. So far, it has pro­duced only a backlash from all sides. The PYD declared that it would have to pull back its combat units from the areas where the Islamic State (ISIS) is being fought to Afrin “for defence.”

The United States made it clear that Turkish “violent acts,” as it ex­pressed it, were unacceptable. The Syrian government issued a blunt statement saying that its forces would shoot down Turkish fighter planes if they entered its air space. Ever-calculating Moscow has not given a green light for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government to launch a military operation.

“Russia is an important sup­porter of the Kurdish cause,” Yaşar Yakış, a former Turkish foreign minister, wrote for Ahval. “The draft constitution prepared for Syria by Russia proposes a federal status for Kurds. Therefore, the United States and Russia may find an accommodation over the Kurd­ish question in Syria. The same reasoning goes for Bashar Assad’s stepping aside.

“These parameters offer the United States and Russia a possible area of convergence if political and military developments do not get out of control. Such an outcome would create serious disappoint­ment in Turkey with both of them.”

The Kurdish military presence in Syria is, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, a strategic compo­nent for American regional policy. However, it may be considered a more tactical one for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose objective is to maintain a vassal regime in Damascus.

Taken altogether, however, this means increasing frustration for Erdoğan as he raises his national­ist rhetoric to higher decibels and whips up a worrisome collective sense of aggression. The more convulsive Turkey’s newly forged Islamist-militarist coalition acts, the more lucidly it exposes its explosive Kurdish issue.

There is also another dimension that should be mentioned in the context of Erdoğan raising the stakes regarding Syria. It may have to do with keeping the ties with Islamist aspirations in the region and beyond.

“The Muslim Brotherhood movements are on the back foot across the region, obviously, and they’re not represented in the region’s administrations but there is still probably an undercurrent of popular support for this ideology and Erdoğan may be targeting that undercurrent of popular support,” İnan Demir, an emerging markets economist with Nomura in Lon­don, told Ahval.

“I suspect when he makes these political statements, they are not only well received by his domes­tic base in Turkey but perhaps by the Muslim Brotherhood base in Egypt, maybe in Jordan and in [the Palestinian territories]. I think maybe he’s in this for the long run and counting on the day when Muslim Brotherhood groups in the region come back on the ascend­ency again.”