Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the side of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul on October 10 served several tactical purposes, one of which was to downplay their differences over the Syrian conflict.
Speaking at a joint press conference afterwards, Erdogan’s only substantive comment was that the two had “considered [Syria] from all angles” and “had a special discussion of which strategy we can choose for ourselves to render humanitarian aid to the residents who are in a very difficult position, in particular, in Aleppo.” Noticeably, he did not mention the intensified Russian bombing of besieged opposition neighborhoods in the eastern half of the city of Aleppo that had precipitated the latest humanitarian crisis.
Nor did Erdogan refer to the safe zone that he had announced, exactly three weeks earlier, was being set up by the Turkish armed forces in northern Syria to shelter civilians displaced by the fighting. But then that is not what has driven Turkish policy in northern Syria since the limited entry of Turkish ground troops on August 24, and is not a genuine aim going forward. The Turkish and Qatari governments are said to be concentrating humanitarian relief at the border town of Jarablus in the hope of attracting internally displaced Syrians there, ostensibly making good on the claim to be setting up a safe zone. But a safe zone bereft of major population centers and associated infrastructure, let alone one that is contested by several warring parties, is likely to attract only the locally displaced. Other flows of displaced Syrians have gone to the more densely populated Idlib province under opposition control, regime-held areas, or Turkey.
LOOKING FOR EXCUSES NOT TO ACT
Concern over the humanitarian crisis in Syria is genuine, but an intricate balance between the Turkish government’s domestic and foreign policy concerns has prevented the creation of a safe zone, while making it a useful rhetorical tool. Over the past four years Erdogan and other senior officials have repeatedly made their readiness to intervene militarily to establish a safe zone contingent upon the caveat that Turkey would act only under a United Nations mandate or in concert with the United States and other allies. This is eminently reasonable. As even some in the Syrian opposition acknowledge, a safe zone or any other variant on it—such as a no-fly or “neutralized” zone—poses huge operational complications and the risk of direct confrontation with Russia, a factor that will greatly constrain even the reputedly hawkish Hillary Clinton should she become the next U.S. president. Everything else has always been smoke and mirrors.
The NATO deployment of two Patriot missile batteries on Turkish soil in early 2013 offers a case in point. The Syrian opposition’s hope that the air-defense umbrella could be extended across the border to protect a safe zone inside Syria was fuelled by off-the-record hints from Turkish officials that NATO members had indeed discussed this option. But that was never the purpose of the deployment. On the contrary, NATO’s formal statement announcing it on December 4, 2012, underlined that the aim was “to defend the population and territory of Turkey and to contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along the alliance’s border.”
By invoking the NATO defense treaty, the Turkish government killed two birds with one stone. On the one hand it reassured its public—especially the governing Justice and Development Party’s base and ultra-nationalist constituencies—of its commitment to national security and the territorial integrity of the republic as it entered a controversial ceasefire agreement with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). On the other hand, the Patriot deployment usefully tied the government’s hands regarding a safe zone in Syria, since it could no longer undertake military action beyond its borders without nullifying its claim of self-defense to its NATO partners.
Throughout, the Turkish government has in effect taken the stance of someone at risk of getting drawn into fisticuffs, who yells “let me at them” while making sure that friends or onlookers have him firmly restrained. U.S. unwillingness to establish a safe or no-fly zone of any kind in Syria has been as explicit as it has been consistent. In December 2014, for example, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice both described talk of a buffer zone or safe zone in Syria as “premature.” Knowledge that the U.S. would not lead the charge enabled the Turkish government to take a bold public position on the issue without incurring the military risks and political costs of putting it into action.
The same dynamics continued even after the Patriot deployment drew to its agreed close in two stages between January 2015 and January 2016. Turkish demands for a Syrian safe zone reached a crescendo in summer 2015, during which senior officials implied that agreement had at last been reached with the U.S. on creating one. But U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner again denied this flatly on August 11, saying “We’ve been pretty clear ... there’s no zone, no safe haven.”
By then, seismic shifts in Turkey’s domestic politics were the key factor shaping government policy on the safe-zone issue. One was the chasm opening up between Erdogan and then prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, regarded as more ideologically committed to an Islamist foreign policy agenda and to intervention in Syria. According to credible sources, he ordered the armed forces to initiate cross-border operations in May and June of 2015, but chief-of-staff General Necdet Ozel prevaricated, citing various concerns about potential domestic and international repercussions and absenting himself on medical leave at one point. Resumption of the military conflict with the PKK also complicated policy towards Syria, subordinating any thinking about a safe zone to the more pressing goal of preventing the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish autonomous canton along the common border.
THE TURKISH MILITARY GOES IN
Smoke and mirrors have again characterized everything to do with military operations in northern Syria since August 24 of this year. That is when the Turkish military took a sliver of Syrian territory along a 90-kilometer stretch of the common border, and Turkish special forces supported a successful push by Syrian armed opposition groups to retake the border town of Jarablus and a string of villages from the Islamic State. Officially, the immediate objective was to prevent cross-border rocket fire by the Islamic State against Turkish towns and to contribute more generally to the effort against the group. But the outwardly assertive stance in fact masked the big challenges facing Erdogan at home and abroad.
Coming in the aftermath of the attempted coup d’état of July 15, the Turkish intervention in Syria served to signal both that Erdogan was in firm command of the armed forces—shown by his ability to order them on a mission they had resisted for several years—and that he trusted them. It also deflected attention from the turmoil of Turkey’s domestic politics. Erdogan has consolidated his personal grip on power, firing 80,000 civil servants—including judges, police officers, and academics in state universities—closing down opposition and independent media, and going after Kurdish parties and officials. But the struggle against Gulenists in the state apparatus, police and gendarmerie, and armed forces is not over. Damage to government services, the economy, and the country’s reputation internationally will moreover take time to heal, as will the divisions within Erdogan’s own party.
This is especially true of the armed forces. The dismissal of 1,684 senior officers by mid-August decapitated the immediate threat to civilian control, but Erdogan cannot be certain that the military has been wholly neutralized politically. And although the “revolutionary civilianization process“ launched by the government since July may resolve this worry in the longer term, the armed forces will not regain full cohesion and effectiveness for several years to come, during which they, additionally, will face a bitter counter-insurgency conflict against the PKK.
Erdogan sparked media interest on September 7 by casually mentioning that “Obama wants to do some things jointly concerning Raqqa,” the northern Syrian city that the Islamic State has made its formal capital. But this was a pure public relations ploy, intended to suggest an improvement in relations strained by Turkish accusations of U.S. complicity in the July coup attempt. Raqqa poses major operational and political obstacles, as Turkish ground forces can only reach it by advancing directly south from the border through Syrian Kurdish lines, or by hooking east of Aleppo and south of Lake Assad along and through Assad regime lines. Turkish forces would also run the risk of mounting casualties and losses in armor once they ran into prepared Islamic State defenses. The hint of a broader military intervention was rebutted by Defense Minister Fikri Işık two weeks later, when he affirmed military support to the Syrian opposition but added that “as of today we do not have any plan to participate in the operation with our infantry.”
A HOLDING PATTERN IN SYRIA
Turkish military intervention will remain limited in coming months, for all these reasons. Erdogan has little incentive to commit further troops in Syria, thereby running the risk of weakening his grip on Turkish domestic politics or the armed forces. He is even more unlikely to send the armed forces on a venture to Raqqa before the new U.S. administration is in place and able to offer tangible foreign policy and security gains in return. And although Putin pulled off a diplomatic coup by announcing the Turkish Stream gas pipeline deal during his visit to Istanbul, it may not survive the two countries’ policy differences over Syria and other issues.
Continuing material support to the armed opposition groups in Syria confirms that Turkish policy towards Syria is in a holding pattern, and that Ankara is not about to abandon them as part of an understanding with Russia, contrary to media speculation. But they will be used primarily to pursue Turkish interests in blocking expansion of the Kurdish canton in northern Syria. Establishing a safe zone in Syria is simply not an operational priority on the Turkish—or international—agenda, even if talk of it retains its political currency.