During the last 24 hours, 72 Turkish jets have reportedly struck 150 targets inside the Kurdish-controlled Afrin district in north-western Syria in which six civilians and three Kurdish militiamen have lost their lives. And today, Turkish ground troops in armoured vehicles have intruded five kilometres inside Afrin from Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
In addition, Turkey has also mobilised the Syrian militant groups under its tutelage in Azaz and Idlib in Syria, and in Kilis and Hatay provinces of Turkey, the latter of which has a substantial presence of Arabs and Syrian refugees, hence the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave has been surrounded from all sides by Turkey and its proxies.
Well-informed readers who have been keenly watching Erdogan’s behaviour since the failed July 2016 coup plot must have noticed that Erdogan has committed quite a few reckless and impulsive acts during the last couple of years.
Firstly, the Turkish air force shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet on the border between Syria and Turkey on 24 November 2015 that brought the Turkish and Russian armed forces on the brink of a full-scale confrontation in Syria.
Secondly, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated at an art exhibition in Ankara on the evening of 19 December 2016 by an off-duty Turkish police officer, Mevlut Mert Altintas, who was suspected of being a Muslim fundamentalist.
Thirdly, the Turkish military mounted the seven-month-long Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria immediately after the attempted coup plot from August 2016 to March 2017 that brought the Turkish military and its Syrian militant proxies head-to-head with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and their US bakers.
And lastly, before Turkey’s intrusion in Afrin, the Turkish military invaded Idlib in north-western Syria in October last year on the pretext of enforcing a de-escalation zone between the Syrian militants and the Syrian government, despite official protest from the latter that the Turkish armed forces are in violation of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Regarding the July 2016 coup plot, instead of a serious attempt at overthrowing the government, the coup plot was actually a large-scale mutiny within the ranks of the Turkish armed forces. Although Erdogan scapegoated the Gulenists to settle scores with his one-time ally, but according to credible reports, the coup was in fact attempted by the Kemalist liberals against the Islamist government of Turkey.
For the last several years of the Syrian civil war, the Kemalists had been looking with suspicion at Erdogan administration’s policy of deliberately training and arming Sunni militants against the Shi’a-dominated government of Bashar al-Assad in the training camps located on Turkey’s borders with Syria in collaboration with CIA’s MOM, which is a Turkish acronym for military operations centre.
As long as the US was on-board on the policy of nurturing Sunni Arab jihadists in Syria, the hands of Kemalists were tied. But after the US declared a war against one faction of Sunni militants, the Islamic State, in August 2014 and the consequent divergence between Washington’s policy of supporting the Kurds in Syria and the Islamist government of Turkey’s continued support to Sunni jihadists, it led to discord and adoption of contradictory policies.
Moreover, the spate of bombings in Turkey claimed by the Islamic State and separatist Kurds during the last couple of years, all of these factors contributed to widespread disaffection among the rank and file of Turkish armed forces, which regard themselves as the custodians of secular traditions and guarantors of peace and stability in Turkey.
The fact that one-third of 220 brigadiers and ten major generals were detained after the coup plot shows the level of frustration shown by the top and mid-ranking officers of the Turkish armed forces against Erdogan’s megalomaniac and self-destructive policies.
Regarding the split between Washington and Ankara, although the proximate cause of this confrontation seems to be the July 2016 coup plot against the Erdogan administration by the supporters of the US-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen, but this surprising development also sheds light on the deeper divisions between the United States and Turkey over their respective Syria policy.
After the United States reversal of ‘regime change’ policy in Syria in August 2014 when the Islamic State overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014 and threatened the capital of another steadfast American ally Masoud Barzani’s Erbil in the oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan, Washington has made the Kurds the centrepiece of its policy in Syria and Iraq.
It would be pertinent to mention here that the conflict in Syria and Iraq is actually a three-way conflict between the Sunni Arab militants, the Shi’a-led governments and the Kurds. Although after the declaration of war against a faction of Sunni Arab militants, the Islamic State, Washington has also lent its support to the Shi’a-led government in Iraq, but the Shi’a Arabs of Iraq are not the trustworthy allies of the United States because they are under the influence of Iran.
Therefore, Washington was left with no other choice but to make the Kurds the centrepiece of its policy in Syria and Iraq after a group of Sunni Arab jihadists, the Islamic State, transgressed its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014 from where the United States had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are nothing more than the Kurdish militias with a symbolic presence of mercenary Arab tribesmen in order to make them appear more representative and inclusive in outlook. As far as the regional parties to the Syrian civil war are concerned, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the rest of the Gulf states may not have serious reservations against this close cooperation between the United States and the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, because the Gulf states tend to look at the regional conflicts from the lens of the Iranian Shi’a threat.
Turkey, on the other hand, has been more wary of the separatist Kurdish tendencies in its southeast than the Iranian Shi’a threat, as such. And the recent announcement by Washington of training and arming 30,000 Kurdish border guards to patrol Syria’s northern border with Turkey and prolonging the stay of 2000 US troops embedded with the Kurds in Syria indefinitely must have proven a tipping point for the Erdogan administration.
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.