Choosing battles

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 22, 2018

In the eye of a storm: An explosion following an air-strike is seen in the Syrian town of Kobani from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey feels threatened by a Kurdish consolidation in Iraq and Syria Photo: Reuters

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

By shooting down a Russian warplane, Turkey reveals that the Islamic State is its dog in the Syrian fight

When Highest political echelons in the most powerful countries have determined that military escalation is the only way forward. Words both spoken and written are expected merely to urge that resolve on. Fighting words become the chorus accompanying unending violence.

French President Francois Hollande’s vow to be “pitiless” in his response to the November 13 attacks in Paris was translated into a series of spectacular airstrikes in Syria, with strongholds of the Islamic State (IS) militia being targeted for special attention. Though ostensibly fighting the same enemy, he was rather delicate about the prospect of military coordination with Russia.

Unabashedly in pursuit of its own agenda, Turkey took hostilities up one notch by shooting down a Russian aircraft engaged in bombing raids against the ostensible common enemy. It clearly had a dog in the Syrian fight. And its name was the IS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted in fury, calling the downing of his jet a “stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorism”. It was after a semblance of concord began to take shape over Syria, a slap in the face of the emerging grand coalition.

Since Russia began active intervention, forces loyal to the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad have made small, but significant gains on the ground. This was a matter of discomfiture for Turkey, as too was the mid-November Vienna conference on Syria. With anxieties over the IS strike in Paris running high and Russia advocating his cause, Assad evidently won some purchase for his claims of being a final bulwark preventing all of Syria and Iraq falling to the extremists.

Russia’s entry into Syria had been a game-changer both militarily and diplomatically. Turkey needed to break that momentum, even by a reckless action that led allies to wonder at a possible descent into insanity.

Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions, unleashed by the meltdown in the Arab world, are threatened by a possible Kurdish consolidation in Syria and Iraq that could spill into its territory. In July, it invoked the collective self-defence clause of the NATO treaty after a bomb attack in a town bordering Syria, attributed to the IS. But to much allied bewilderment, it retaliated by bombing Kurdish militias that had begun gathering forces to take on IS combat units.

The IS is evidently a useful asset that Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan can deploy for domestic political advantages and neighbourhood tactical gains. A brutal twin bombing in the capital city of Ankara in October, just three weeks before parliamentary general elections, was denounced by the left-wing opposition as a deliberate act of provocation to create an ugly polarisation. In retaliation, Erdogan swept up vast numbers of the party cadre, throwing its campaign into disarray and preparing for an electoral triumph that will likely enable him to amend the constitution and perpetuate his growing personality cult.

There was a seeming sense of purpose in the renewed French airstrikes in Syria after the Paris attacks — except there was not. While a large number of the identified killers of Paris had served time in Syria — in pursuit of officially declared objectives in both France and the US to effect a change of regime — they had all been socialised in solidly European milieus. Foreign climes had little to do with their radical inspirations, which were cultured and brought to bloom in the countries they wrought havoc in.

Why then, the “pitiless” French resolve in bombing Syria? Hollande had no ready answer and was anxious merely to maintain the imperial posture while consulting with bigger boys — the US and Russia — to work out a consensus on targets.

The US groused initially that Russia did not differentiate between “legitimate” opposition to the Assad regime and the rest.

It was a conceit that won little traction: that in the wildly shifting ensemble of Syrian battlefield loyalties, the US alone held the touchstone of legitimacy. Yet as Hollande prepared to pay court at both Moscow and Washington DC, President Barack Obama did put out a hint that coordination was possible, if Russia were to abandon Assad.

Turkey lent urgency to that demand with its belligerence, which will likely earn a stern reprimand though not more serious sanction. But if its purpose was to assume the mantle as ultimate arbiter of Syria’s affairs, it may well have taken on a burden too heavy to bear.

Hollande landed in Washington DC within hours of Turkey’s effrontery. He was due to proceed from there to Moscow, as part of coalition-building against the IS. He was anxious to spare the overstretched US military the onus of committing ground forces in Syria. But then, who would render that indispensable military force on the ground, without which the flaunting of airpower would be an exercise in futility?

Russia was already in alliance with a credible formation on the ground, stitched together from Syrian army units loyal to Assad, Iranian special forces and elements of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Few others are eager to step up, because the neighbourhood states all have agendas at variance with the urgent western need to vanquish the IS. Saudi Arabia is desperate to see the end of the Assad regime but is mired too deeply in Yemen. Jordan, the Emirates and Kuwait, after the first flurry of enthusiasm for airstrikes, have cooled off and now prefer to watch from the sidelines.

Turkey could well follow up its folly in the air with a military incursion on the ground, larger than anything it has attempted so far. That could be the spark that turns the feint and joust of four years into a full-scale regional conflagration.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla

Published on November 27, 2015

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