Updates (no.3): Turkey’s Syria & ISIS Policy

Update no. 3 – 24 November 2015

A new crisis is unfolding on the Turkish-Syrian border and Russia is once again a central actor. According to reports so far, Turkey seems to have downed a Russian Su-24 jet which, according to Ankara, violated Turkish airspace over Hatay. Russia disputes Ankara’s claims and argues that the jet was within Syrian airspace when shot down. The plane crashed in Syria (see the Guardian map below). The body of one of the pilots appeared in a leaked video and is estimated that it’s been captured by the anti-Assad Alwiya Al-‘Ashar group.

Source: The Guardian

Source: The Guardian

Why it Happened

  • One of the reasons this incident occurred was because of the strict rules of engagement of the Turkish military with regard to the Syrian conflict and the actors involved in it. Moreover, Turkey has in the recent past warned Russia of such violations. From this perspective, Ankara’s move works as a way of maintaining credibility within the framework of its coercion diplomacy and deterrence in particular.
  • To be sure, Russia had it coming.  Moscow’s air operations have been focused not so much on the Islamic State but on anti-Assad, West/Turkey/S. Arabia-supported groups, such as Ahrar Al-Sham, Al Nusra, and Turkmen militias in Western and Northwestern Syria. At the same time, Russia’s strategy was connected to the advancements of the Syrian regime close to Latakia. For Turkey this was unacceptable.

Turkey’s Aims

Following from the above, and related to what has been written in this post previously, Turkey is aiming to accomplish certain goals and secure certain interests. The downing of the Russian jet was only a tactic.

It aims to:

  • Deter and contain the Russian-backed advancements of Assad’s army.
  • Deter, contain and ideally dissolve the Kurdish cantons along the Turkish-Syrian border which have been indirectly favored by the Russian operations.
  • Protect the West-backed groups which Russia has been bombarding.
  • Manipulate the West-NATO camp and turn it against any convergences with Russia over Syria in the aftermath of the Paris Attacks.
    • Rather, it wants to secure a role in the settlement of the Syrian conflict which, ideally would not involve Assad or the Kurds.
    • It wants to keep the no-fly and safe zone on the table, reversing Obama’s latest indication against it.
    • By extension, it wishes increased and enforced involvement in Syria as a means of promoting and securing its own strategic goals.

What to Expect

  • Both Russia and Turkey seem reluctant to escalate the crisis further though a prolonged war of words should be expected.
  • The developments regarding the two pilots may prove important for the next steps.
  • Further worsening of Russia-Turkey relations in the sectors of economy and energy cooperation is likely; a military confrontation not so much.
  • It is unlikely that the crisis will justify Turkey invoking NATO’s Article 5.
  • There may be some backlash with regard to the UNSC’s latest decision and the France-West-Russia potential collaboration on Syria.

Update no. 2 – 05 October 2015

I know I haven’t been very consistent with the updates of this post although there have been a lot of developments since July. For example, early in September we saw an escalation in Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds – the ceasefire was cancelled earlier, in July (see previous update for more on the Kurdish issue). Russia’s active military involvement in Syria has been the newest development that complicated the war even more. Since September 30, Russia has been conducting airstrikes in Syria against various jihadist and anti-Assad groups (for more on the drivers and goals of Russia’s policy see this and this).

Russia’s (grand) strategy in Syria aside, these airstrikes have a direct impact on Turkey’s policy towards the war, Assad and ISIS. importantly, although Turkey and Russia have been on opposite camps when it comes to Syria (and a number of other issues), Turkey was never vocal against Moscow’s role in the war. Even now, Ankara seems to be very conscious of its position as it’s trying not to poke the “big bear” too much. The situation may be about to change after Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador in Turkey to protest a reported violation of Turkish airspace by a Russian jet. Nevertheless, the focus of the Russian airstrikes on areas where “moderate” anti-Assad Islamist groups operate (e.g. in and around Idlib and Hamah – see map below) clearly undermines Turkish and Western proxies more generally. For example, Ahrar al Sham, and other Islamic Front branches, that have been supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are now under attack by Russia and they already seem to be losing ground.

Source: Institute for the Study of War

Source: Institute for the Study of War

This puts Turkey and Russia at odds like never before since the breakout of the Syrian conflict. On the one hand Russia’s strikes against ISIS may be favoring Turkey’s strategy in part. But the reinforcement of the Assad regime runs opposite to Ankara’s overall approach in Syria which seeks to fight ISIS, overthrow Assad and deter the Kurds, all at the same time. That Syria’s Kurds find Russia’s intervention beneficial is also problematic for Turkey. Of course they disagree with Moscow’s support to Assad but they appreciate the indirect help in the fight against jihadist groups, including ISIS. It also seems that there is an understanding between Russia and the Kurds, that a future settlement in Syria would recognize and ensure the Kurdish rights.

Overall, Turkey’s Syria and ISIS policy faces yet another setback. Its strategic goals are becoming increasingly more difficult to achieve, not least because their degree of ambition is disproportional to the country’s capabilities – as it’s been noted repeatedly by this and many other authors. The way things are progressing right now, with Russia putting diplomatic pressure on the West through the leverage of military power, it seems that a political compromise on the Syrian conflict is more likely than the attainment or satisfaction of Turkey’s goals. Should this compromise involve Assad’s stay in power temporarily or permanently and the solidification of Kurdish rights (maybe in the context of a mutli-zone Syria), Ankara would not have only failed miserably, but it would also find itself before new – and potentially worse – security threats.

Update no. 1 – 31 July 2015

One week ago I wrote “Shifting the Balance against ISIS, or why Turkey Changed its Mind“, one of the first attempts out of hundreds of others to explain Turkey’s policy shift with regard to ISIS. Since then a lot has happened while Turkey’s active involvement in the fight against ISIS both directly and through allowing the US to use its Incirlik air base, was perhaps the most-covered issue in international media. Right after the “cheers” of the international community for Turkey’s involvement and hopes that this would be a game changer in the fight against ISIS, it soon became evident that Turkey was more interested in bombing Kurdish militia (PKK, YPG/PYD) positions rather than the “Islamic State”. The main question that analysts and reporters alike are trying to answer is: why? This is a reasonable question given the threat that ISIS seems to be posing to Turkey. The second question is, will the strategy followed by Ankara accomplish Erdogan’s goals or backlash?

I believe there are two main reasons why Ankara targets both the Kurds and ISIS, with more focus on the Kurds.

  • For Turkey, the Kurdish threat is more important because it emerged long before ISIS and bears much more geopolitical risk than the jihadists, not least because of the strong social support the Kurdish insurgency enjoys in Turkey and the region. Moreover, the emergence of a Great Kurdistan, comprised of an Iraqi, a Syrian, an Iranian and a Turkish Kurdistan, which is Turkey’s greatest fear, is becoming more plausible by the day. Not only with the establishment of the Iraqi Kurdistan but also with the slow formation of the Syrian Kurdistan. From this perspective, it is only strategically logical for Turkey to be hitting Kurdish targets since the costs of the Kurdish insurgency outweighs the costs of ISIS. Within the same framework, Turkey also takes into account that ISIS is a relatively new organization which has far less possibilities of survival than the Kurds. Further, according to the IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review ISIS lost 9.4% of its territory between January and June 2015 while the Kurds of Syria expanded their territories by 9.8% (see image below).
Source: IHS Jane's Intelligence Review

Source: IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review

  • Second, Turkey has a clear goal of weakening all actors in Syria (Kurds, ISIS, Assad) and by extension Iran as well. In this sense, for Turkey it is a matter of good-old cost-and-benefit calculations and threat prioritization. Kurds may come first, ISIS second and eventually Assad. The ultimate goal is change of the regional balance of power to the benefit of Turkey and the projection of political control over post-Assad Syria.

With regard to whether this strategy will backlash or be successful, things are a bit more complicated. As noted in the previous article, the public, political and economic scene in Turkey opposes an intervention in Syria. Erdogan could play the card of retaliation against ISIS after the Suruç bombing and present himself (and AKP) as a decisive when it comes to the security of his country and its people. However, Erdogan’s ambitions and insecurities led him farther and he is now more engaged in the Syrian civil war than any time before. In fact, this is probably the first time that post-Ottoman Turkey is actively involved in regional affairs to such a degree. Against this background, Erdogan’s strategy might not have the desired outcomes; that is, it might neither secure Turkish people and territorial integrity nor an AKP victory in a snap election. The fact that the majority of Turks prefer Kurds over ISIS (controlling northern Syria) makes the “backlash” scenario even more likely. At the same time it might reverse whatever progress was noted in Turkish-US relations with Turkey’s involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign.

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