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Turkey enters the fray

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 23, 2018

Pushing forth: Afterthe Suruc bombing,Turkey got NATO toconcede a ‘safe zone’where the oppositionto Syria’s Basharal-Assad regime couldentrench itself. Here,a Turkish flag (R) flies among others flags of NATO members during the North Atlantic Council (NAC) meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, last month.   -  REUTERS

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

Turkey got the memo on the US-led war on terror rather late and then misread it

There was a sense of urgency about Turkey’s call on July 26 for consultations under article four of the NATO treaty, invoked when threats arise to the ‘territorial integrity, political independence or security’ of any member state. The Islamic State (IS) had carried out its first attack on Turkish territory: a suicide bombing that killed 32 student activists in Suruc, a town bordering Syria. The left-wing students were attacked as they assembled to take relief material across to Kobane, a predominantly Kurdish town in Syria devastated by long-running battles with the IS.

Turkey got NATO to concede one of the demands it has long, and insistently, pressed for: a ‘safe zone’ where the opposition to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime could entrench itself. Recognising this meant an explicit and undiscriminating involvement with the Syrian opposition, the US had long resisted it. In the maelstrom that is Syria today, a US-sponsored safe zone would work to the advantage of the IS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabath al-Nusra, both among the US’ principal enemies on the broader canvas of the ‘war on terror’.

Once Turkey secured active US backing for the ‘safe zone’ plan, it showed its gratitude by unilaterally changing agenda and attacking the most effective force fighting the IS on the ground. The first sorties by Turkish war-planes targeted Kurdish forces combating the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra to regain territory around Kobane.

Turkey was the spoiler in 2003, when the US was in an extreme flush of war-lust preparing for the invasion of Iraq. It refused transit rights for US forces and declined permission to use NATO’s Incirlik airbase, located on its territory. As Iraq descended into chaos, Turkey moved in subtly to deepen its strategic influence. Fearful of its own internal stability, Turkey had for long opposed any hint of autonomy for Iraq’s Kurdish regions. But the shifting strategic alignments in the region, especially after the conflict in Syria acquired dimensions of full-blown civil war, meant that Turkey could go beyond older formulae and seek an accommodation of convenience with the Kurdish self-governing unit in Iraq. It was relatively risk-free, since Turkey was then in a state of ceasefire with its own Kurdish guerillas. For Iraq’s Kurds, a relationship with Turkey was a strategic offset for growing Iranian influence in the largely Shia south of the country.

These strategic calculations started going seriously askew as the Syrian turmoil escalated and the IS effectively effaced a vast part of the border with Iraq. Kurdish armed groups geared up for resistance to the IS by coordinating across frontiers, raising the prospect that they would take control over contiguous territories from Iraq through Syria, right up to the Turkish border. That set off alarm bells in Turkey and an overt move towards intervening in Syria and Iraq with bombing raids on Kurdish targets. Turkey is now fully engaged in Syria as part of NATO, but working at clear cross-purposes with the putative leader of the alliance. The US wants the defeat of the IS and regime change in Syria – perhaps in that order. Turkey wants to crush the Kurdish resurgence and secure regime change in Syria, in no particular priority, though it sees the IS as a distinctly lesser worry.

With the explosive arrival of the IS in 2014, the US was officially committed to a battle of dual containment, seeking the destruction of the IS while also dismantling Syria and Iran, the militia’s only credible regional opponents. It was not long before the inconsistencies in these objectives began to wear down its infinite appetite for war. In deep remorse, vice-president Joe Biden said in October last year that US-assembled alliances had directly fuelled the rise of the IS. Outraged reactions from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey prompted a quick apology, though Biden’s only sin was uttering publicly what was by then the official reading of US intelligence.

In August 2012, well before the emergence of the IS as a threat, a report by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in the US, spoke of the possible repercussions of continuing chaos in Syria. Regime change was a declared policy objective and, as in various other contexts, the US was gladly aligning with every political tendency in that pursuit. The DIA noted that the insurgency in Syria was principally driven by an extremist sect called the Salafists, as also the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. Among its supporters were ‘the west, Gulf countries and Turkey’. Further aggravation in Syria, the DIA observed, could lead to ‘a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria’. This was ‘exactly what the supporting powers’ wanted, ‘in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which (was) considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)’. The potential deterioration of the situation though, would have ‘dire consequences’ for Iraq. It would create the ‘ideal atmosphere’ for Al Qaeda to ‘return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi and (would) provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria’. There was no mystery about the emergence of the IS as a force that, within days, could seize control of major cities and a vast area within Iraq. It was foreseen almost to its last details. What remains to be revealed is the role various regional actors played in fomenting the chaos .

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

Published on August 07, 2015

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