On Sunday, an estimated 600 Turkish troops entered Syria in an unprecedented incursion. Their stated mission was to relocate the historic tomb of Suleyman Shah and evacuate the soldiers guarding the monument after it was surrounded by Islamic State militants.
The action, which involved tanks, drones and reconnaissance planes as well as ground forces, was the first incursion by Turkish troops into Syria since the start of the civil war there nearly four years ago.
The Syrian government denounced the move, describing it as an act of “flagrant aggression” on Syrian territory. It said it would hold Turkey responsible for its repercussions.
Syria has repeatedly accused Turkey of supporting insurgent groups that have seized control over large swaths of territory in northern and eastern Syria, by allowing them passage through its porous border. In a significant expansion of its role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the U.S. and Turkey signed an agreement last week to train and equip thousands of moderate Syrian rebel groups.
Gokhan Bacik, an analyst and professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University, explained why Turkey has stepped up its cooperation with the international community in the fight against ISIS.
Syria Deeply: ISIS militants have surrounded the tomb of Suleyman Shah for many months. Why did Turkey decide to intervene now?
Bacik: There are several reasons behind this decision. Turkey is approaching its elections, and the government doesn’t want another hostage crisis like last year. There was a concern that if Turkey prolonged its response to rumors that ISIS was surrounding areas around the tomb, it would become a crisis for the government. Ankara was scared of being drawn into the conflict in Syria if ISIS later attacked the tomb.
Syria Deeply: Turkish critics of the move have said that it signals a retreat from the fight against ISIS, if not indeed a defeat. Why do they feel this way?
Bacik: Technically, it was a successful operation, but symbolically, it was a failure. It’s a piece of Turkish land with a lot of symbolic significance. The Turkish government tried to protect its public image by relocating the tomb inside Syria, to symbolize that Turkey isn’t retreating completely. It could have been relocated to Turkey, but the problem is the public would have criticized the government for failing to protect what is considered to be Turkish territory.
Syria Deeply: Turkey is creating a new tomb site in the Kurdish-controlled town of Ashme in Syria. There are also suggestions that the military operation to relocate the tomb could not have been done without assistance from Kurds on the ground. Does this signal a new page of cooperation between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds?
Bacik: The Turkish government needed a piece of land that was secure for a period of time and the only alternative was found in a Kurdish area inside Syria.
Turkey is facing a dilemma where, on the one hand, Ankara knows it should cooperate with the Kurds, but on the other hand it’s not happy with the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria and southern Turkey.
The incursion wasn’t a serious military operation, but it requires, given how fragmented Syria has become, behind-the-scenes contact with many different elements, including Kurdish groups such as the YPG and PYD as well as the U.S. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened just after Turkey and the U.S. signed an agreement to arm the Syrian opposition.
Syria Deeply:Ankara and Washington recently signed an agreement to jointly train and equip of thousands of moderate Syrian rebels. Are we witnessing a new stage of collaboration in the fight against the Islamic State?
Bacik: Definitely. As of today, we are seeing signs of a shift in Turkey in its stance towards the Islamic State. Turkey is now realizing that it should update its security policy with the West in regards to the ISIS threat. Turkey is now addressing that threat in a more serious way, so it is more likely to be part of the U.S. led process in the fight against the group, and could be part of that operation soon. As far as I understand, Turkey is making preparations to contribute.
But it’s not only about the Kurdish and ISIS issues: Turkey is now completely isolated in its foreign policy. Turkey’s prestige is very weak, so its only option is to come to an agreement with Western institutions, where Turkey can play a role in the fight against ISIS. It’s the only way it can market itself.
Turkey has various instruments to cooperate with the arms and training program, but I think the program is going to fail – it can help fight ISIS, but it cant help the fight against Assad and the rival blocks trained by Iran who are fighting to preserve his power.
Syria Deeply: Turkey has laid out conditions for joining the U.S. led coalition, including the removal of Assad, while the U.S. has stressed that its priority is battling the Islamic State. To what extent can there be convergence between the two countries in the fight against ISIS?
Bacik: Turkey should update and refine its policy on Syria. Its main strategies and concerns regarding Syria are different than that of the U.S. I don’t know how convergence between the two is possible. Turkey’s priority is first and foremost to weaken Assad. This condition puts Turkey in a very difficult position vis a vis the U.S. and Western policy.
Given the difference on a macro scale between Turkey and the U.S, technical cooperation will always be limited. Turkey should update its understanding of Syria to become more closely aligned with that of Western governments. However, right now that’s very difficult because Turkish leaders view Syrian problems as purely a domestic issue. They believe that if they update their stance on Assad, it will be a failure in the eyes of Turkish domestic policy.
Syria Deeply: The Syrians, who have repeatedly accused Turkey of abetting the Islamic State, said the raid offered further evidence of a “deep connection between the Turkish government” and ISIS. Does this accusation have any bearing in reality?
Bacik: Several months ago, pro-government newspapers in Turkey were telling the Turkish public that ISIS wasn’t a terrorist group. Members of the Turkish parliament also said that ISIS wasn’t a typical terrorist organization. Turkey needs to update its understanding of ISIS, no doubt. It not only failed in regards to Syria, but in regards to ISIS.
It was very telling how Iran and Russia reacted to Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria. Iran’s deputy prime minister immediately criticized the incursion as a violation of international law. It’s not easy for Turkey to maneuver in the region right now. Turkey has contributed to the formation of this very ugly picture in the region.
Syria Deeply: Jihadists are using Turkey as their main logistical base for the flow of foreign fighters. Is Turkey now at risk of retaliation from ISIS? How will it protect its border? How large is the ISIS threat inside Turkey?
Bacik: There is no doubt that Turkey is trying to move more closely towards anti-ISIS rhetoric and behavior. The question is if Turkey starts collaborating with the U.S. against ISIS, how will ISIS react? ISIS conducted an operation in Turkey almost a year ago, in Nideh, which killed members of the Turkish army. There was a suicide attack in Sultanahmet, and even though it was hidden from the Turkish public, we know ISIS did it.
Very frankly speaking, Turkey cannot protect the border. The Turkish border with Syria is almost 900km long: it’s impossible to protect. To protect it, you would need a stable government on the other side. It’s a paradise for jihadists and for smuggling drugs. It’s a problem of geography. In the beginning, Turkey expected ISIS was going to weaken Assad, but we are now seeing the fallout of that perception.
There are rumors, but no evidence, about how ISIS is organized in Turkey. Some people say there are thousands of people linked with ISIS living in Turkish territory. So far, we’ve studied ISIS as mainly a Syrian and Iraqi issue. We have no idea about how ISIS is organized on Turkish territory, but there are many people from Turkey joining ISIS. We don’t know if ISIS is going to activate its followers in Turkey, and we don’t know how ISIS is going to react to this recent incursion.