After numerous recent terror attacks on its soil, Turkey has finally decided to take a more active role in the Syrian Civil War. This move is welcomed by many, but is not without its problems.
In the early hours of Wednesday 24 August, Turkish tanks rolled across the Turkey-Syria border into the Jarablus area of northwestern Syria. The tanks were followed by pick-up trucks full of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and were preceded by heavy shelling of an area held by the so-called Islamic State (IS). The move signalled that the Turkish government is willing to become much more involved in the Syrian conflict. With the power of the second largest armed forces in Nato behind them, this means that Turkish-backed Syrian rebels will be able to make much more progress both against IS and the Syrian government.
Turkey’s decision to invade is not particularly surprising. After almost a year of multiple deadly gun and bomb attacks throughout Turkey, primarily by IS, it was only a matter of time before action was taken. From a twin suicide attack at a peace rally in Ankara in October 2015 that killed more than 100 people to a suicide bomb at a wedding in Gaziantep that killed 54 people last Saturday, IS has a lot of Turkish civilian lives to answer for. The Turkish government’s new hardline stance towards the group, including a recent crackdown on cells in Istanbul and heavy air and artillery bombardment of positions in Syria, demonstrates to IS that the Turks are ready for a fight.
For a period of time, there was debate over whether Turkey was indirectly supporting IS, mainly because the Turks were not doing anything to stop them. After the infamous beheadings of western citizens in 2014, by which point IS had proved its ruthlessness and mercilessness to the world, the Turkish government stood by and did not even attempt to exert any influence in the region to stem the violence.
In September 2014, Turkey decided not to allow the US Air Force to use the strategic Incirlik Air Base to launch the US-led intervention in Syria. A 2014 report stated that Turkey did not carefully maintain its border with Syria, allowing foreign recruits for IS, as well as supplies, through into IS territory. All of these combined to depict Turkey as a quiet IS supporter. This quiet support was most probably fuelled by the Turkish government’s dislike of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, which itself perhaps stems from a sectarian divide between the Sunni Turks and the Shiite Assad. Their policymakers most likely thought that IS was radical enough that it stood the best chance of bringing down Assad’s regime. They were obviously wrong, and IS turned against them.
However, the Turkish policy is not without flaws. The Turkish cross-border offensive targets Syrian Kurdish forces as well, and Turkish bombardments of Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria have been ongoing for over a year. Attacking the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) is counterproductive to Turkey’s aim of destroying IS, as the YPG have proved themselves to be the most effective frontline fighters in the war against IS. The YPG have been fighting IS for over two years, and have been making progress ever since. The YPG’s resilience was proved to the world in the siege of the northern Syrian town of Kobane in early 2015, where it was expected that IS would easily crush the Kurdish forces defending the town. However, with close air support provided by the US, and after months of close quarter fighting, IS was pushed out of Kobane.
The Turks are hostile to the YPG because of the YPG’s alignment with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group operating within Turkey that has been at war with the Turkish government since 1984. Turkey’s hostility to the Syrian Kurds is understandable, but the YPG itself has never entered Turkish territory, let alone attacked it. Therefore, the Turkish government needs to put its hostility aside and focus on attacking (what is in its opinion) the greater of two evils: IS. The US is working very closely with the YPG by giving them air support, so Turkey doesn’t necessarily have to back the Syrian Kurds or directly fight alongside them, but it can at least refrain from attacking them.
Turkey’s attitude towards the Syrian Kurds has reason behind it. But as the second largest armed forces in Nato and as a regional power that has directly suffered because of IS, it has the capability to destroy them. If the bloodshed is to end quickly, it needs the Turks to focus on fighting the most radical groups. The Turks must fight not for their interest, but for the interest of the Syrian people. Therefore, the current Turkish policy of fighting a two-pronged war is not going to work. They need to focus on fighting IS instead of bombing the YPG. Only then will the suffering of the Syrian people come to a long overdue end.