Reposted from ANF English, August 25, 2022.
Hints of a meeting between AKP leader and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, as well as ministerial contacts, have revealed a change in Turkey's Syria policy in recent weeks. But what really changed? Erdoğan continues his attacks and invasion preparations against northern and eastern Syria unabated. The Turkish president sought a "green light" from Russia and Iran. Putin told Erdoğan to clarify this issue with Assad. Erdoğan then changed course. The question now is whether Turkey will be able to reach an anti-Kurdish agreement to invade northern and eastern Syria this way, or whether it will launch an invasion on its own initiative without getting the "green light".
In an interview with ANF, the Honorary Chairman of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and the Honorary Member of the Parliamentary Council of the Council of Europe, Ertuğrul Kürkçü, discussed this issue.
Erdoğan has tried in vain in recent weeks to get the "green light" for his cross-border operation. Nevertheless, he continues to announce an imminent attack and, on the other hand, gives signals of "normalisation" to Assad. How do you assess this?
As far as Syria is concerned, Erdoğan is under massive pressure from Iran and Russia within the framework of Astana and Sochi. It was clearly expressed that they would not allow him to intervene militarily in Syria. Not only was Erdoğan spoken to, but public statements were made to this effect. The United States of America (USA), the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN), i.e. all the world's major powers, also warned Erdoğan to refrain from such a move.
The balance of power had changed compared to previous years and it was obvious that Syria needed to take a clearer stance, especially in the face of attacks from Turkey. There was also the possibility that if Turkey ignored this and intervened militarily, all forces would come into play and the Middle East would descend into chaos with unforeseen consequences. Therefore, all the powers tried to change Erdoğan's mind on this issue.
But Erdoğan could not or would not restrain himself at the "13th Ambassadors' Conference", even though he had promised to act within the limits set by Putin and his hands were legally tied because of the UN Security Council resolution on the cessation of hostilities and the Astana process. He announced that he would also occupy the areas between the already occupied territories near Manbij, between al-Bab, Afrin, Gîre Spî and Serêkaniyê, stating: "We will create a security belt by uniting these fronts."
To be honest, after the speech of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov at the joint press conference with the Syrian Foreign Minister in Moscow the day before, I think that Turkey does not have the power to implement what Erdoğan is announcing and that it will not be able to launch this offensive.
Moreover, due to the size, historical dimension and social scope of the Kurdish question, Erdoğan did not intend to achieve a strategic result with the military operation he mentioned, but to create a political opportunity for himself with it. He had hoped to present the image of a hero, a playmaker at the centre of the world before the elections and to mediate as a "dove of peace" in the war between Ukraine and Russia. To this he is now also trying to add the image of a "master of war". But because of the political and diplomatic strains, the losses and the possible great unrest that a militarily pointless and useless operation would bring, the great powers blocked Erdoğan's way, and thus Turkey's, and he had to be content with the limited room for manoeuvre he was given.
Does this mean that Turkey is completely blocked and that its Syria policy has changed profoundly?
The change in the strategic balance of power in Syria does not mean that all possible tactical lines for Turkey change. Turkey has always followed a tactical line. This has also been confirmed by international publications. Since the beginning of this year, many commentaries have claimed that Turkey will not deploy military forces on a large scale in Syria but will resort to drone and artillery attacks to clean up the planned so-called "security belt".
Russia and the USA have no objections to this tactical positioning of Turkey. All the experts following the issue believe that both the US and Russia are giving Ankara the green light for these attacks with drones and howitzers. In other words, they believe that this path has been opened to let the air out of Ankara's demand for a ground operation. I personally also think that this is a realistic interpretation that explains the situation.
Why do you think that?
No matter how limited the means Erdoğan had to make do with until the balance of power was favourable to him again, his noise was still taken seriously. Parliament passed his decrees and Erdoğan was authorised to send troops to Syria on his orders alone, without the need for another parliamentary decision. Let's assume that the Turkish forces did not cross the borders due to the warnings of the international powers, but they did move troops to the border. Indeed, the recruited jihadist army also gathered behind the ceasefire lines. All that was missing was the order to attack.
But this should not reassure anyone. As a result of the drone attacks, there have been numerous killings and massacres of civilians in both Southern Kurdistan and Western Kurdistan. The price of Erdoğan's grandstanding is the civilian casualties and the losses among the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is Syria's legitimate defence force.
So far, Turkey's drone strikes have not been able to "neutralise" any of the people it has put on the list of "prime targets", but whether or not those on whose lives attacks have been conducted were the "prime target", none of those killed can ever return or be replaced. These are heavy losses for the Kurdish people and their defence forces. In other words, even if this tactical operation has no short-term military impact, it is part of a corrosive process in the long and medium term.
Putin referred Erdoğan to Assad. In your opinion, is an anti-Kurdish agreement between Ankara and Damascus likely in the long term?
Objectively, all states are united in their action against the Kurds. No state that bases itself on an "actual nationality" or "ruling nationality" tolerates even the most limited autonomy. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey will not give up their war against the Kurdish people even when they are at war with each other. In this context, I believe that the Turkish and Syrian intelligence services are in contact even in the times of the worst relations between the states. Of course, I have no proof, but it is not difficult to make predictions. In this sense, we see that Turkey is exhausting all possibilities. Erdoğan has already confirmed this by saying, "We are in contact." But now Syria is stronger, it has put down the uprising. The regime has put massive pressure on the "rebels", who were incited, armed and equipped by Turkey, in Idlib. The Syrian army would be ready to wipe out also a large part of the civilian population in Idlib if the attention and conscience of the world community allowed it.
That is why the strengthened regime in Damascus has declared: "We will not hold negotiations at the level of heads of state and government as long as Turkey has not left Syrian territory." However, this does not mean that there are no negotiations under the table. Incidentally, this was also mentioned in Lavrov's recent remarks, in which he meant, "Let Syria rebuild itself in the self-administered areas in the north and east. This will solve the problem for you. Why do you bother yourselves?" So I don't think there will be a meeting between Assad and Erdoğan unless Turkey somehow gives up its claims to Syrian territory. In fact, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said: "There will be no meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Summit, Assad is not invited anyway." In other words, there will be no such agreement between the heads of state and government in the short term.
But Turkey is in the hands of Russia. From this point of view, especially if the pressure intensifies in the election campaign, Turkey will be open to being 'convinced' by Russia to recognise Syria, to flatter the Syrian government and to take some steps to improve relations with Syria. I think Turkey and Russia need such contacts more than the Syrian regime does, because the regime is now firmly in the saddle. However, Russia needs to bring Turkey to its side and present itself with it against the West. Therefore, it is imperative for Russia to support Turkey. For Turkey, given the great difficulties it is in, there are not many options other than to follow the path laid out by Russia in Syria.