The Syria-Iraq battlespace is about to get another player. Turkey and the United States agreed this week to a shared goal of establishing an “Islamic State-free zone” along Turkey’s border with Syria.
Given Turkey’s historic role in the greater Middle East, dating back hundreds of years to the Ottoman Empire, it’s perhaps not surprising it wants to get involved in the conflagration to the country’s south. The entire world around Turkey is immolating in Europe, Ukraine, Greece and Syria and it now thinks something must be done.
But what, exactly? If Turkey thinks it can fix the present mess, then it would already have done so. Syria has been burning for four and a half years, and President Bashar al Assad is no friend of Turkey. Ankara has had ample opportunity to use its forces – the strongest military collection in Europe – to oust the cruel Syrian leader but has chosen not to.
That decision, reflecting America’s own choice not to get involved in Syria in the early days of the 2011 Arab Spring, is looking more short-sighted every day. Mr al Assad is no longer the leader of his country, he is simply the strongest warlord in a geographically vague state riven by factions and religious zealots. The weakness a retreating Syrian regime means the Islamic State (IS) is close to solidly occupying the vacuum.
But only a poor student of Levant history would believe the Turks have not been covertly involved in Syria and Iraq up until this July. Reports and leaks from across the region recite rumours of Turkish assistance to some Syrian rebels, yet those rumours are often balanced by tales of Turkish incompetence and amateurishness in helping those self-same rebels.
Turkey is also the country through which thousands of IS fighters move on their various ways into Syria and Iraq. The Turks have chosen not to intervene in these “rat lines” to avoid provoking IS militants and drawing a violent response inside Turkey. Some even suggest this non-interference is Turkey’s way of supporting IS (both are Sunni-majority entities). Both explanations may be true in their own ways.
So Turkey has for years been both active in Syria and Iraq, and not active. It is both indirectly assisting while also cutting IS supply lines. It is both waiting for the region to calm and covertly pushing the various players in useful directions. In other words, Turkey’s goal is to appear ambiguous – which is exactly the illusion it wishes to convey.
Turkey is too large, too strong and occupies a geography too critical for it to maintain a non-interference posture. Yet it is too weak and too immature to adopt a hegemonic posture reminiscent of its Ottoman days. Right now, its best option is building a balance of power with the other three regional powers of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel.
Turkish strategists would dearly love to remove Mr al Assad’s regime, but it lacks the bandwidth to control what would be an enormous humanitarian and political responsibility in the aftermath. It does not want to encourage an Islamist replacement either. On these lines, the US and Turkish strategy converge – hence the recent agreement to base US aircraft at Incirlik airbase and a buffer zone.
Where Ankara and Washington diverge is on the question of the Kurds. The US has historically supported Kurdish sovereignty and is backing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq. But Turkey has dealt harshly with Kurdish separatism and isn’t enthusiastic about Kurdish autonomy spreading to Syria where it would surely spill into Turkey.
The question for Ankara is how long can it last without making clear, unambiguous choices about what its power actually demands in the region. Maybe the longer it waits, the chances of things naturally concluding will rise. Maybe they won’t. Either way, if it pulls closer to the US over the last half of 2015, it will get more difficult to maintain the illusion of non-interference.
The stark reality is that, unlike the US, Turkey cannot simply choose to leave the region for other pressing concerns. There is a lot of sense in Turkey’s plan to remain watchful yet unengaged, but even this choice is risky as the situation changes rapidly in its near-abroad.