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What Turkey Really Wants in Syria

In order to avoid the Syrian quagmire and secure its border, Turkey must make peace with the PKK, writes Mustafa Gurbuz and Anthony Wynne. Washington should dissuade Syrian Kurds from attacking Syrian rebel forces and convince them that PYD advances on Sunni land upset both Turkey and Arab nations as a whole.

Written by Mustafa Gurbuz and Anthony Wynne Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On February 17, 2016, a vehicle loaded with explosives detonated near Turkish Armed Forces’ headquarters, the Parliament and other government buildings in Ankara, claiming 28 lives. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces in northern Syria and vowed to retaliate, even if the YPG rejected the claim of responsibility in plotting the attack.

But will Turkey make good on its threats to send ground troops into Syria? Future implications of the bombing are closely tied to three major dynamics at play in Turkey’s domestic-foreign policy nexus.

1. Growing Consensus Against Kurds

While President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu prioritize supporting the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, the Turkish military is primarily concerned with the Kurdish advances in northern Syria. Erdogan, who worries he’s losing his ground in domestic politics, especially after the summer elections, chose to play the Turkish nationalism card in a populist fashion by targeting the Kurdish youth organizations affiliated with the PKK in southeastern Turkey. His strategy provided a window for an overlapping consensus between the government and the Turkish military on pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in northern Syria.

Turkey’s pro-government media outlets support a ground invasion into the Azaz region sooner rather than later, claiming that it is the final chance for Turkey to return to the game in Syria after being severely hurt by the spat late last year with Russia. Proponents of this perspective suggest that a powerful Saudi-Turkish alliance backing the opposition is necessary to stop further Russian aggression. Yet, strong warnings from Hezbollah and Iran indicate how Turkish-Saudi involvement could escalate further Sunni-Shia violence across the Middle East. The Turkish military elite know it is not in their best interest to take a strong stance in Syria’s increasingly sectarian war, but they may be dragged into the conflict because of their hostility toward the Kurds.

2. Washington Must Choose Between Turkey and the Kurds

Ankara recognizes an urgent need for a new framing of their diplomatic language to garner American support. After Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet along its border late last year, the government realized that a green light from the U.S. is necessary before any ground troops can be deployed into northern Syria. To the ire of Turkey, Russia has been actively providing the YPG with air cover in northern Syria as well as encouraging Kurdish involvement in the Geneva talks. Rebel fighters and small Kurdish opposition groups have long accused the YPG of working closely with the Assad government and taking advantage of air power from Russia. But the PYD claims to be “neither with the opposition nor with the regime.”

In search of a new discourse, Turkish officials have recently stated that Washington must choose between Turkey and the PYD. Pro-government media joined the chorus calling for U.S. forces to be barred from using Turkish air bases. Turkey has called for U.S. support against the YPG, as the group is now presented as a domestic national security threat to Turkey, equated with the PKK. Erdogan stated that Turkey will not let Kurdish militia fighters backed by the United States establish a foothold on its border in northern Syria and will not stop shelling if its security is threatened. “It is out of the question for us,” said Davutoglu, “to excuse tolerance toward a terrorist organization that targets our people in our capital.”

The escalating tensions between Turkey and the YPG will increasingly become a serious challenge in Washington’s Syria policy. If Kurds continue to attack Syrian opposition thanks to Russian air power, Washington will not only upset Turkey but also Sunni Arabs in the larger Middle East.

3. Psychological Preparation for Invasion

The aftermath of the Ankara bombing also opened a new framing for domestic consumption in Turkey: As the YPG now becomes a domestic security concern for Turkey, the nationalist deputies may line up for the government’s “war on terror.” The opposition parties in the Turkish Parliament have long refused an invasion into Syria. Yet there is increasing nationalist fervor, which has been stoked by Erdogan’s grab of power and his quest for changing the constitution into a more forceful presidential system.

However, there lies a major challenge in the government’s attempts at psychological engineering. In 2014, Turkey’s conservative Kurds, who supported the AKP government, expressed their frustration about Erdogan’s Kobani policy and supported the Syrian Kurds strongly. It will not be easy to convince them that the YPG is Turkey’s most imminent domestic threat, as most Kurds distinguish between the PKK and YPG, due to YPG’s courageous stance against ISIS. The Turkish left, who supported the HDP (pro-Kurdish party in the Parliament), shares the same feelings.

Thus, Erdogan’s presidential aims and alliance with the Gulf regimes are as important to understand as the Turkish military elite’s nationalist fears. Although it is unlikely that the U.S. will approve of a Turkish invasion, Turkey’s “overlapping consensus” — albeit having different reasons discussed earlier — may take the country’s border into a low-intensity conflict, especially if the PKK calls for arms in the southeast “in defense of Kurdish brethren in Syria.”

Turkey’s Kurdish issue is now becoming more global: It’s a point of contention in the Syrian war and causes complications in alliances across the board. The AKP government appears to be at a crossroads. If a new peace process begins with the PKK fighters, Turkey may well perceive its best interest as avoiding the Syrian quagmire and controlling its border security. The alternative road will not only be steep for Turkey and her allies, but also risky and dangerous.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

Top image: Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks to a group of foreign reporters in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

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