Analysis: Erdogan’s Syria gamble expansionism that risks future quagmire

 Turkey’s incursion into Syria’s northern region of Afrin on January 20 along with extremist factions under the name of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), marked the beginning of a new period in the Turkish foreign policy which can be labeled Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism.

The field reports show that the Turkish army and its militant allies, largely comprised of fighters of the ISIS and Al-Nusra Front terrorist groups, have managed to fully seize Afrin enclave in the northwest of Syria after two months and during an asymmetrical battle. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has recently announced that time has come for the second phase of the assault, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, to begin to push forward for capturing Manbij, Tell Abyad, Hasakah, Kobani, and other Kurdish-majority towns controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) through its military wings, on top of them People’s Protection Units, or YPG in short. Sources close to the Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have noted that the Turkish leader in a meeting with his fellow party members last week vowed to appoint a governor to the freshly-occupied city.

In the first place, the move may look trivial, but the reality is that Erdogan’s plan for Afrin governor appointment apparently signals Ankara’s rejuvenated return to Ottomanism. In fact, the Turkish president’s picking of a governor for the Syrian town echoes similar choosing of walis (local rulers) for the cross-border territories by the Ottoman Empire’s sultans. He even made his policy more brazen when he on Sunday announced the intention to launch an offensive into Iraq’s northwestern town of Sinjar, a mountainous region with the predominantly Kurdish population.

While Erdogan shows no signs that he wants to stop his operations in the near future in neighboring countries, a set of questions come to the mind: Will the Turkish leader be successful in realizing his goals? Moreover, what issues should be taken into consideration in analyzing the Turkish aggression’s various objectives and aspects? Answering the questions takes looking into Erdogan’s goals and also the regional and international equations. This can facilitate drawing an outlook for the future.

Erdogan’s sets eyes on regional crisis hubs

The most significant point of the Turkish army’s new moves in the region is the efforts of Ankara for territorial expansion. Erdogan and his AKP, embarking on a religious agenda, have several times signaled strong zeal to return to the Ottoman rule. This, in their strategy, takes re-domination of the regions that were under the Ottoman rule before it met its demise after the First World War. In the past few years, only some analysts highlighted, in theory, Erdogan’s chasing the dream of rebuilding the Ottoman Empire. But now many of them believe that the Turkish leader is in practice pursuing his neo-Ottoman goals. The Afrin governor appointment case bears witness to the analyses that in the current conditions Ankara has no plans to return Afrin and other areas like Jarabulus and Al-Bab to the central Syrian government and the future may see Turkey annex them to its territories.

Repressing Syrian Kurds, Addressing refugee crisis

Control of the whole of Syria’s north is another drive behind Erdogan’s decision to launch Afrin operation. Turkey has 930 kilometers shared borders with northern and western Syria. Before recent Afrin capture, 800 kilometers of common borders with Turkey were held by the Syrian Kurds. Arguing that his operation is meant to guarantee the national security through cleaning the border areas of the fighters of Turkey’s home archenemy the Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been fighting the Turkish military for over four decades, the Turkish leader eyes full seizure of the northern Syria. Such goals can help Turkey meet the refugee troubles. Its refugee camps now host about three million displaced Syrians. Settling the refugees in the captured areas is beneficial to Ankara because it, on the one hand, can get rid of the huge costs of keeping the camps running on its territory and, on the other hand, can change the demographic order of the north to its advantage as the Kurds will lose majority and hence the capability to pursue independence.

But keeping Afrin under the Turkish control as part of Erdogan’s ambitions may prove costly to Ankara pushing it into a strategic bottleneck, a situation that not only can set up roadblocks ahead of Erdogan’s regional expansionism but also can end up impairing AKP’s base on the country’s political stage.

Here are the barriers Erdogan’s Turkey can find in front of his enthusiasm for expanding territorially:

Western opposition

The Turkish president desperately needs to win the US contentment to successfully press ahead with his plans. Without the US satisfaction, the issue looks much like a pipe dream to Erdogan.

Turkey, a member of the NATO, is increasingly becoming a trouble-making partner to the West in the region, moving in stark contrast to the Western plans in Syria. Now the prominent members of the European Union, namely France and Germany, have the deepest divides with Turkey among the other members of the 27-nation bloc. This is beside the already-existing differences with Washington over a range of issues, including the Kurds with whom the Americans over the past two years developed a close alliance. Certainly, the Turkish-American gaps will grow wider as a recent reshuffle of Trump administration has brought to work Mike Pompeo, the former CIA chief, as the new Secretary of State and John Bolton as the new national security advisor, replacing H. R. McMaster.

Erdogan’s expansionism: Triggering alliance shifts

Expansionist policies of Turkish president in West Asia stands a catalyst to major transformations in the regional equations and the alliances existing among various actors. As a result of Erdogan’s ambitions to seize Idlib and parts of Aleppo, two important developments are expected to reshape the equations and alliances. On the one side, the Syrian government will not keep silent to the Turkish aggression. Once the present Eastern Ghouta operation is over, Damascus will make arrangements to counter the Turkish violations. At the most basic level, the Syrian government can raise the Turkish attack on Afrin and possibly other areas as a legal case to the United Nations. Once Turkey is blamed as an aggressive party, Erdogan will have to deal with many difficulties ahead.

Moreover, Turkey’s military progress in parts of Syria will make its stand face to face with the Syrian army. A rudimentary expectation is that Russia and Iran, Syria’s staunchest allies, will confront Turkey, too. This, in turn, can endanger the trio’s cooperation on Astana peace initiative. Even a full Russia-Turkey military encounter is not unthinkable because Moscow struggles for a solution to the eight-year crisis and strongly opposes Syria split scenarios. Erdogan will be the definite loser of such a face-off. So, to Erdogan’s frustration, Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is far from winning a legitimate face and at the end of the road, Ankara will have to hand over this and other seized areas to Damascus.           

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