The Turkish parliament’s vote in favour of a cross-border military action is a force multiplier in Syria for the US and Nato. The Assad regime’s warning that it breaches Syrian sovereignty is unlikely to deter the West. Yet whether Turkey will acquiesce to becoming Nato’s cat’s paw is debatable.
That depends on the blowback it anticipates domestically from its diverse ethnic constituents, which include 15 million Kurds and about 10 million Alevis (akin to the Alawis of Syria), who have remained largely quiescent so far. Further deep-seated animosities against the Turk in the Arab world could tactically bring together contesting Arab Syrian opposition groups.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has outlined three objectives of the military action: Create a buffer zone within Syria to relieve pressure from unending refugees; topple the Assad regime; and support the peace process with the Turkish Kurds led by PKK’s Abdulla Ocalan. There are unstated goals too: Strengthen proxy Syrian Sunni opposition groups to prepare them for power and prevent ISIS from crossing into Turkey. It is a scenario pregnant with possibilities, all of which accord not surprisingly with American and Western priorities.
The Turkish exhortation to ease its difficulty of succouring two million refugees inside its territory and stemming the flow is reason enough for a military operation into Syria. Turkey has limited options unless ISIS stops its violence. UN Security Council resolutions on Syria already allow cross-border humanitarian aid without the regime’s sanction. The next step could well be a limited operation for establishing a safe haven inside Syria, possibly with a no-fly zone with support from Nato partners. It will be easy to sell it internationally. Turkey’s entry will effectively obliterate the border with Syria just as ISIS has succeeded in doing so with the Syria-Iraq border.
Nevertheless, if needed, a pretext for military action already exists: The security of the Turkish exclave in northern Syria and the mausoleum of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman dynasty. Erdogan has promised retaliation in case ISIS attacks the 40 Turkish soldiers guarding the shrine.
However, Turkish military operations against ISIS still remain a major problem. Quite apart from the flexibility in manoeuvre, tactics and weaponry that a non-State actor can muster, the duration of the engagement cannot be predicted. It will have to look forward to a long stay in the trenches without any guarantee of success. Turkey could well prefer to work through its armed Syrian proxies. Further, the costs of a frontal assault on ISIS could also prompt charges of killing co-religionists. At the same time a degree of intelligence coordination with the Assad regime appears indispensable for military success. Yet this remains outside the bounds of possibility.
Turkish entry is a mixed blessing for the Assad regime. Turkey is unlikely to take on the Syrian Army frontally, regardless of its relative superiority, lest it get charged with invasion. Rather, Turkey will aim to indirectly weaken and dissipate the Assad regime. It would put pressure by reducing the regime’s area of effective control including the major south-north communication arteries. By whittling down the regime’s support base it could provoke a renewed exodus towards the buffer zone. Much will depend on the extent to which Russia and Iran remain ready to shore up the Assad regime. Turkey’s military entry will exacerbate the political and religious churning in the region and a pliable Sunni-led government in Damascus seems the most probable outcome, which will anoint Turkey as the kingmaker in Syria.
This phase in the conflict will see the beginning of the re-drawing of borders in West Asia probably along confessional lines. Thanks to US support we could also see a larger Kurdish entity emerging beyond the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to include Kurds from Syria and Turkey and eventually Iran.
Rajendra Abhyankar, a former envoy to Syria and Turkey, is professor of Practice of Diplomacy, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington
The views expressed by the author are personal