A burst of orange flashed from a field on the Turkish-Syrian border, against the backdrop of the setting sun. Rattles of gunfire from Syria pierced the silence of a sleepy Turkish ghost town. This was less than a week into the Turkish offensive into northern Syria, ostensibly to clear a so-called safe zone, in what Ankara calls “Operation Peace Spring.”
For some in this border area, however, these scenes over the weekend are not unfamiliar.
Turkey has been embroiled in a long-running conflict with Kurdish fighters on the Turkish side of the border, and the operation that Ankara launched across it last week is just the latest flare-up in decades of tensions.
Yet Turkey has ambitious goals for its current operation: to set up a safe zone and eventually resettle upwards of 2 million Syrian refugees living inside Turkey across the border, a move that observers say would dramatically change the Kurdish-Arab demographic balance in northeastern Syria.
This could serve as Turkey’s solution to its Syrian refugee population, and ease growing resentment among Turks towards the Syrians who have sought safety in the country. But with recent developments on the ground, it’s not clear if that will be part of the bargain.
It’s also a rare moment of unification for Turkey. No matter how polarized the country’s politics are, there is near unanimous support for military action against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoots – except, of course, from the pro-Kurdish party. This gives Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the chance to rally the country behind him after his party suffered biting blows in recent local elections in Ankara and Istanbul.
Four decades of conflict
Turkey’s conflict with Kurdish separatist groups – namely the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization – has spanned four decades and claimed tens of thousands of lives. The PKK insurgency began in earnest in the mid 1980s. Its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan operated from Syria, and fighters had camps in the country’s north. By the late 1990s, Damascus had capitulated to mounting pressure from Ankara, evicting Ocalan and shutting down PKK camps.
In 1998, both countries signed what is known as the Adana agreement, which states that neither will harbor anyone nor permit any activity in their territory which jeopardizes the other.
The PKK is not just labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, but also the US and the EU.
In 2013, Turkey came close to negotiating peace with the PKK, which would have been a momentous historic victory for Erdogan. But two-and-a-half years later, those talks disintegrated, a tenuous ceasefire was broken and the PKK launched an uprising in southeastern Turkey, for the first time controlling swaths of territory there. Pitched battles ensued before Turkey wrestled back control of the area, while simultaneously dealing with the fallout of PKK and ISIS attacks on towns and cities.
With the rise of ISIS, the US-led coalition turned to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as their fighting partners on the ground. The YPG is the armed branch of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a sister organization or offshoot of the PKK.
As the US-backed YPG fought ISIS, Kurdish armed groups expanded their sphere of influence in northern Syria, and Turkey found most of its southern border controlled by what it considers to be an existential threat.
“Turkey for the first time in history would be cut from the Arab world and this was a source of great paranoia for the Turkish government,” said Behlul Ozkan, associate professor of international relations at Marmara University. “All the mountainous regions are also controlled by the PKK. Add into this picture, there was a threat that ran all the way from Iran to the Mediterranean.”
This was a threat that Turkey had not calculated when it launched its high-risk Syria policy back in 2011, Ozkan adds.
Analysts say that Turkey believed that the Arab dictators whom protesters were trying to unseat across the region in the 2011 Arab Spring would not last. It was maneuvering to position itself as the leader of the revolutions across the Middle East and a potential post-revolution era with their collapse. Ankara even met with members of the Kurdish leadership in Syria to convince them to fight the regime, but they refused.
“AKP (Erdogan’s party) tried to convince PYD to fight against Assad,” said Ozkan. “There were high-level negotiations in Ankara, in around 2012,” he said.
When the war on ISIS began, Turkey lost much more than it had bargained for.
“The dramatic development was not just a PYD state, but one that was supported by Turkey’s western allies.” Ozkan explains. “The PYD also opened an office in Moscow. Suddenly the PYD was in action in Europe, Russia, and the US. Turkey’s entire strategy was simultaneously falling apart.”
Russia pulls off coup while Washington in is ‘disarray’
The geopolitical stage has now shifted again, and analysts liken what is going on to Turkey’s 1974 Cyprus operation.
“They launched a military intervention against Cyprus and (the attention of) Washington was sucked (in) by the fallout of Watergate” said Serhat Guvenc, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University.
“Today, Washington is in disarray. There is no policy. Erdogan and his staff view the current situation as a window of opportunity that should be seized upon.”
But seizing that opportunity has left Erdogan largely isolated, at least publicly. Some European countries announced they have halted arms sales to Ankara. The Arab world has condemned the move.
Facing criticism from Republican lawmakers and members of his own military, Trump on Monday sought to take a harder line on Turkey as the country pushed further into northern Syria. Trump said he was applying harsh new sanctions on certain Turkish officials, and in a phone call with Erdogan, Trump “could not have been more firm” in expressing his displeasure at the incursion, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters at the White House on Monday evening.
Over the weekend, however, the Kurdish administration in northern Syria announced it had struck a deal with the Syrian regime, to have Bashar al-Assad’s forces deploy along the border.
And just like that, Russia pulled off a geopolitical coup without firing a single shot.
“For the Russians, the idea is that the Turks will help them get rid of the Americans without any cost. Turkey is pulling the chestnut out of the fire for Russia and the Syrian regime.” Guvenc said. “Russia has pulled off a very fine game of diplomacy because the Kurds finally accepted to deal with the Syrian regime to abandon those areas to the regime control.”
“We will see I think in the coming days to what extent Putin is willing to let Turkey move in Syria,” he added. “The only challenge for Putin is to persuade Erdogan to pull out Turkish troops from Syria and return those parts of Syria controlled by Turkish military, but that will be part of future negotiations.”
Russia’s ultimate goal is being reached: getting the Americans out of Syria. The Syrian regime is also making large strides forward by regaining areas that were under Kurdish control, breaking a years-long political deadlock in the region.
For Turkey, this is a bitter pill – but one that it can likely swallow. Toppling Assad was one of Turkey’s main priorities during Syria’s eight-year war, but if the regime takes over the towns along the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey’s security will be ensured, at the expense of potentially accepting that the Damascus regime will remain in power.
It is hardly the first time in history that the Kurds have been betrayed by Western powers. After World War I, the Kurds were promised their own state only to have their population – which extends through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – divided by new international borders.
At its core, this is all political horse trading with bloody consequences. The situation in Syria is extraordinarily complex and far from resolved. Syria today is a country where the US has no influence, Turkey has made its move, and where Russia is at the top of the game. And when it comes to this type of geopolitical multidimensional chess, it’s the civilian population that has neither a say nor a voice, but is at the mercy of the players.