Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's risky gamble could quickly turn sour | Simon Tisdall

Turkish president defies Russia, the US and Bashar al-Assad with assault on Kurds in Syria

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Kurdish vendetta has taken a dramatic new twist with the cross-border ground assault on the Afrin enclave in north-west Syria.

Defying Russia, the US, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Turkey’s headstrong president is betting on a decisive victory over Syrian Kurd forces. But his risky gamble could quickly turn sour.

The initial incursion by Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies on Sunday, preceded by days of airstrikes and artillery shelling, appeared tentative and limited in scope. The Syrian Kurd People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, said to number 10,000 fighters in Afrin, is not giving an inch. They are dug in and they are defending the Rojava – the fabled Kurdish homeland.

In 2011, after the Syrian war erupted, Erdoğan adopted the west’s aim of ousting Assad. When Islamic State emerged in Syria and Iraq, Nato member Turkey ostensibly prioritised its defeat. But since 2015, when a ceasefire with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) militants broke down, the Kurdish “terrorist threat” emanating from Syria and Iraq has become Erdoğan’s big obsession.

Erdoğan used a failed army coup attempt in 2016 to justify a crackdown on pro-Kurdish political parties, whose elected leaders remain in jail. He also cut a de facto deal with Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, accepting their Syria agenda. In return, they acquiesced in Erdoğan’s first big Syria incursion in 2016.

For Erdoğan and likeminded nationalists, the idea of an autonomous or independent Kurdish entity stretching from northern Iraq to Turkey’s Hatay province in the west, and potentially embracing parts of south-east Turkey, is an existential nightmare. Preventing it has eclipsed other considerations. Now the president is chancing his arm again.

Kurdish areas in Syria

Erdoğan’s big problem, Kurdish resistance aside, is that none of the big players support him. He was obliged to send officials to Moscow last week to obtain Russia’s agreement. Even so, the Russian foreign ministry expressed serious concern on Sunday.

Russia has pulled back its ground forces to prevent accidental clashes. But it still controls the airspace over Afrin and could step in at any time. Assad is furious with Erdoğan, and so too, presumably, are his puppet-masters in Iran. Damascus has threatened to hit back militarily – especially if Erdoğan pursues his threat to advance east towards Manbij, another Kurdish stronghold.

All three – Iran, Assad and Russia – would rather have the Kurds controlling swaths of northern Syria than Isis, similar Salafist groups or US-backed, anti-regime rebels such as the FSA. They are meanwhile promoting their own self-serving plans for a post-war settlement. Erdoğan’s maverick behaviour could jeopardise that.

Turkish army tanks on the move near the Syrian border.
Turkish army tanks on the move near the Syrian border prior to the incursion into Afrin province. Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA

Erdoğan is also at odds with the Trump administration, and not for the first time. There are longstanding tensions over perceived past Turkish ambivalence towards Isis, Nato use of Turkish air bases, visas for Turkish citizens and Erdoğan’s claims that the 2016 coup was masterminded from the US by an exiled cleric.

The US refusal to end its backing for the YPG, which it regards as an effective ally against Isis and against the next big threat, a resurgent al-Qaida, has driven relations to breaking point. Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, made matters worse last week with an open-ended commitment to maintain or increase the US military presence in Kurdish-held areas of Syria.

A US plan to train a 30,000-strong border force comprising the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, an FSA rival, seems to have sent an already livid Erdoğan over the edge. Tillerson later claimed Washington’s intentions had been misunderstood, and the Pentagon and the State Department made conciliatory noises on Sunday.

But Erdoğan is unbending. Rightly or wrongly, he sees northern Syria as Turkey’s number one security challenge. He also appears, yet again, to be dealing the “Kurdish terror” card to a domestic audience. Turkey’s leader is now almost totally isolated internationally – but appears not to care.

Contributor

Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proposes 'safe zone' for refugees in Syria
Turkish president tells UN expanded zone could resettle millions of refugees in Turkey

Patrick Wintour in New York

24, Sep, 2019 @6:34 PM

Article image
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: a dictator in all but name seeks complete control | Simon Tisdall
Turkey’s president is unlikely to lose an election that will make him more powerful than Atatürk

Simon Tisdall

19, Apr, 2018 @4:00 AM

Article image
Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkey's elected sultan or an Islamic democrat?

The PM appears to be cementing his grip on power, telling the nation it has never had it so good. But the war in Syria, an economic dip and the Kurdish question may be his undoing

Simon Tisdall in Istanbul

24, Oct, 2012 @5:22 PM

Article image
Erdoğan's Syrian incursion could be his biggest gamble yet
Turkey’s president faces some difficult choices after being given green light by the US

Simon Tisdall

09, Oct, 2019 @1:01 PM

Article image
Kurdish militia vows to make Afrin 'an ongoing nightmare' for Turks
YPG plans hit-and-run attacks on Turkish and Syrian rebel forces after pulling out of besieged city

Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

19, Mar, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Attack by Turkish forces on US-backed Kurds in Syria thought imminent
Operation targeting ‘terror nests’ would risk inflaming tensions between Trump administration and Ankara

Martin Chulov in Beirut, and Kareem Shaheen in Istanbul

16, Jan, 2018 @6:22 PM

Article image
US deal with Turkey over Isis may go beyond simple use of an airbase
Ankara’s understanding with Washington may do more than allow the US to use Incirlik from next month

Simon Tisdall

24, Jul, 2015 @11:44 AM

Article image
Isis advance sends Kurdish refugees to Turkey ahead of key vote on crisis
Islamic State fighters threaten Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani as Turkish MPs debate deployment of troops in Iraq and Syria

Constanze Letsch

02, Oct, 2014 @4:21 PM

Article image
Fight fundamentalism by tackling poverty, urges Pope Francis
Pontiff calls for greater tolerance on visit to Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who has been criticised for authoritarian policies

Constanze Letsch in Istanbul and agencies

28, Nov, 2014 @7:40 PM

Article image
'Isis suicide bomber' strikes Turkish border town as Syrian war spills over
Islamic State militants suspected to be behind blast that has killed at least 30 leftwing activists at cultural centre in Suruç, near Kobani, in worst attack since 2013

Kareem Shaheen and Constanze Letsch

20, Jul, 2015 @4:55 PM