The more Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drives his policy on having a say over Syria’s future and insists on expanding influence along his country’s southern border, the more resentment from the neighbourhood he faces.
On the eve of the Mosul offensive, Erdogan was once more vocal, declaring his opposition to foreign intervention to the Islamic State-controlled city. “Mosul belongs to those who live in Mosul and nobody has a right to enter here,” he said. “When the city is liberated from [the Islamic State (ISIS)], only Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Sunni Kurds should live there.”
While the emphasis on Sunni identity is sufficiently underlined, the question remains whether such calls echo positively in Iraq or Syria.
The latter, backed by Russia, has made it clear that, no matter how deeply into the Syrian soil Turkish armed forces may have advanced, the issue of establishing a safe zone will not be that easy. Both Moscow and Damascus know that as long as Ankara’s Kurdophobia is at play and its rift with the US administration continues, the Turkish military presence aimed at blocking Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) advances is a fragile one, to be tolerated as long as it is useful for Assad-regime forces to weaken the Syrian opposition.
Americans, meanwhile, try to pursue their own agenda. A Raqqa offensive is in the making, along with the one against Mosul, and there are two lines of argument against each other in Washington that have to do with the role of Turkey. One side, the sources say, thinks that the YPG should continue to be relied on for decisive combat. The other side says a NATO military force such as Turkey should be engaged more, with the condition of excluding the Kurdish element in the battle, which is to be extended into Iraqi territory.
Voices in support of giving Turkey a lead combat role in the anti-ISIS offensive have come also from elsewhere. ”Only Turkey is in a political and military position to intervene on the ground over Aleppo and it is demonstrating this at present by attacking ISIS. Turkey can now, because of changed circumstances, create a crucial balancing factor in Syria by taking urgent humanitarian action with its troops and air power in relieving the siege of Aleppo,” wrote David Owen, a former British Foreign secretary, in the Guardian.
”Turkish military action should and could be mounted within hours of a decision by Erdogan. It would have the power to implement a no-fly zone (NFZ), with protected land corridors for humanitarian aid and the flow of people both ways into and out of Aleppo,” he wrote.
“This should be accompanied by a demand for the withdrawal of Assad forces to a line between Hama and Aleppo… [NATO] forces would guard Turkey from the air as it conducted this humanitarian operation. Air activity outside the NFZ would continue against [ISIS] in Syria and Iraq by Russia, [NATO] and Assad forces.
“A Kurdish area of influence in Syria in relation to [ISIS] would continue de facto but there would be no de jure implications, for that would be both unacceptable to Turkey and pre-empt a much more difficult medium-term settlement of issues that involve Iraq and Iran.’
Emboldened by the growing pro-Turkish stand, Erdogan sees a prospect of power sharing in the regional chess game, which he thinks will cement his leadership at home.
The reality on the ground speaks differently. No matter what, Turkey is seen as an invading force both in Syria and Iraq because of its military presence in both countries’ northern territories. This causes deep suspicion about its intentions within the Russia-Syria axis, as well as within the international coalition.
Soon after the Turkish parliament passed a resolution renewing the government mandate for continued cross-border military action, a fierce reaction from the Iraqi parliament added to the tension. Its statement declaring that Turkey will be seen as occupational force threatens that bilateral treaties with Ankara be suspended and condemns Erdogan’s recent statements.
Once more, Erdogan stands between his unwaning intention to assert his will over two southern neighbours, with Ottomanism lurking in the background, and the reality. He has been pushing Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani to take Ankara’s side but, as Baghdad reads this move, it complicates the fragile ground as the Mosul offensive approaches. Stakes for the Turkish government are higher than ever before, regardless of full military engagement or not.