Could Turkey go to war in Syria?
In 2008, no one would have believed that Turkey would consider taking military action to secure regime change in another country, that it would maintain near-permanent bases abroad, or would control foreign nationals in jihadist groups alongside its own military.
But in the past decade, Turkey has adopted a doctrine of asymmetric warfare. This has turned Turkey into a different country.
Following the deaths of 13 Turkish soldiers in Syrian government shelling in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib this month, Turkey has entered a new phase and we are left with an entirely new question; could Turkey enter a conventional war in Syria?
In other words, is a war between Turkey and Syria, in which Russia would play an important role, now possible? The answer to this question for now is that warfare is a possibility that should concern us.
First, let us visit some important points:
As far as Russia is concerned, Syria’s future is tied to President Bashar Assad’s regime. Someone else could be president, but maintaining the current regime is Russia’s red line.
As a result, the solution to the Syrian crisis for Russia is for the Syrian government to regain control of the entire country. In this situation, the Syrian military has been proceeding with Russian support without regard to which areas are under the control of Turkish troops.
If the Syrian military encounters trouble, Russian forces provide air support to clear the way. Considering developments since December, it is clear that Russia is proceeding with attacks without discriminating between those groups backed by Turkey and those that are not.
It is clear that Russia’s goal is the restoration of Syrian government control over all of Syria, but Turkey has spent the past five years unable to see that.
What has happened in Idlib over the past week has come as no surprise. The dynamics at play are a result of disagreements behind the scenes, at meetings such as the series of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Although it is well-known that Turkey and Russia could not reach a consensus on many issues, Ankara thought it could continue on its way as if these issues did not exist.
What is more, the assumption that everything will be resolved in the near future has resulted in short-sighted decisions. For example, compared to the beginning of the war in Syria, at this point every radical group considered useful is receiving indiscriminate Turkish support. But despite this support in arms, money and resources, these groups do not stand a chance in the face of the Russia-supported Syrian military.
This terrible strategy has taken a toll beyond the loss in life and resources.
The first is the destruction of the Turkish state’s reputation, which was constructed over a century to project a peaceful and influential image.
The second is the damage to Turkey’s reputation as a strong state. As Turkey sits at the negotiating table with Russia, the Syrian military attacks Turkey with Russian support. It is important to see that the Syrian military’s actions are belittling for Turkey.
The Syrian government is clearly challenging Ankara. Russia does not seem to care, and is taking sides. Not a single actor is hesitating due to worries about Turkey’s response.
Meanwhile, Turkish decision-makers remain bullish.
For example, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s coalition partner, Devlet Bahçeli, said: “The Turkish nation should be ready to enter Damascus if it becomes necessary, if we do not see other options.” At the time, Turkish soldiers near Idlib, surrounded by Syrian forces, were unable to receive air support due to Russian hindrance.
Given the clashes in Idlib, Turkish commanders should also reflect on their actions. What kind of strategic short-sightedness would allow Turkish surveillance to end up being surrounded by enemy forces? What are these Turkish forces now observing, in surveillance zones, surrounded by the Syrian military?
The Turkish general staff’s statement that it responded in kind is seriously concerning if it is using this rhetoric as more than a public relations ploy. It can be read as a clue that the general staff is struggling to articulate the position that they are in.
So, would Ankara seriously consider a conventional war with Syria?
Firstly, if we look at the performance and thought processes of its foreign policy leaders since 2011, we could say this would not be a surprising outcome. As it is, the crisis in Syria has naturally brought us far past the point of direct confrontation between Turkey and Syria.
Still, many pro-government advisors and writers have been arguing for continuing and expanding war with Syria.
The second critical point is this: what will happen if Russia confronts Turkey with its pro-Damascus red lines?
When considering this problem, it is important to bear in mind that some Turkey-backed jihadist groups have been attacking both Russian and Syrian targets without distinction.
To revisit an important point: Russia’s fundamental Syria policy is based on the Damascus government regaining control of the entire country. Consequently, an attack of Syrian government forces is an attack on Russia’s central game plan.
The root of the problem is this: Turkey has clearly decided that it can solve its issues in Syria, including its Kurdish problem, by maintaining a long-term military presence in the country. This long-term strategy also includes establishing political and civilian administrations in certain areas as well.
For this reason, we will continue to see Turkey put up with and further complicate the crisis in Syria, creating more problems along the way.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.