Erdogan’s Ottoman designs

Just when the killing fields of Syria were seeing a glimmer of hope in a United Nations-sponsored peace process in the new year, the regional scenario was rocked by a new development in the country’s multi-faceted conflicts: on Tuesday, November 24, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian aircraft near Yayladag, north of Syria’s Bayir-Bucak area, which is a Turkman-dominated region. (The Turkman in Iraq, Syria and Iran are linguistically and ethnically Turkish.)

First reports suggested that the Turkish action had been carefully coordinated by Turkey with the US, since the latter was uneasy about the expanding Russian role in the Syrian conflict. However, since then, a less-than-full endorsement of the Turkish version of events has emerged from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: Nato leaders have called for “cool-headedness” by Turkey and have urged “calm and de-escalation” and the need for “further contacts” between Turkey and Russia.

Turkey’s interests in Syria have been adversely affected by the territorial gains of the Kurds across the Syrian-Turkish border. Unlike the Masoud Barzani-affiliated Kurds in Iraq whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has assiduously cultivated and weaned away from the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syrian Kurds, represented by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), have close ties with the PKK. Thus, the consolidation of the YPG over 400 km across the Syria-Turkey border is seen as a serious threat to Turkey’s long term interests. These Kurds have for long enjoyed support from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who saw them as valuable allies against Turkish incursions into Syria.

Turkey has responded to this challenge in two ways. First, it has projected itself as the champion of Syria’s Turkman community located mainly in the border areas across from Turkey’s Hatay province in Mount Turkman in north Latakia, and in the northern areas of the Idlib and Aleppo provinces. It has organised the local communities into at least a dozen militia which are today not only fighting Mr Assad’s forces, but also preventing the further expansion of the YPG elements across the border. The Turkman militia have a number of Chechen fighters in their ranks and also closely collaborate with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Second, Turkey has been a solid source of support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), historic enemies of the Kurds. Turkey has provided the principal route through which jihadis entered Syria to join the ISIS, as also the route through which arms and other supplies were sent to this lethal jihadi force. More importantly, according to recent reports, Turkey has been the principal buyer of oil sold by ISIS from the Syrian fields captured by it, with a few thousand oil tankers traversing several hundred kilometres daily to markets in Turkey.

The entry of Russian forces since September on the side of the Assad regime has ensured that regime change through military means has now become a near impossibility. From early October, Russian air attacks on elements hostile to Mr Assad robustly targeted the Turkman militants, while Syrian armed forces carried out ground action, succeeding in taking Mount Turkman on the way to recover Idlib.

Against this background, Mr Erdogan has once again raised in Europe and the US his old plan to set up a “safe zone” and a “no-fly zone” in an enclave in Syria at the border in which thousands of displaced Syrians could be accommodated. Located at the northern border area of Aleppo province, this enclave would be about 90 km long and 40 km deep, going from Jarablus to Marea in the west. While cleansed of ISIS presence, it would also disrupt the contiguity of Kurdish territory, separating the 400 km long eastern Kurdish territories from the small Kurdish pocket further west, around Azaz and Afrin. Mr Erdogan has set a “red line” for the YPG at the eastern bank of the Euphrates at Jarablus.

Mr Erdogan has been pushing the safe-zone proposal since 2013, but has never obtained US or European support primarily due to their concerns that this “no-fly zone” under Turkish control could provide free passage to the ISIS, while threatening the advance and consolidation of YPG forces at the border.

The sustained attacks of the Russian and Syrian forces on the Turkmans had seriously jeopardised Turkish plans to set up their safe haven in Aleppo. The Turks then lashed out at the Russians in the hope that this would mobilise their Nato allies on their side and prevent further Russian assaults on non-ISIS targets. It seems Mr Erdogan miscalculated both in regard to the resilience of the Russia-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance and the threat that his Nato allies see in ISIS, particularly after the Paris attacks. Russia has now located at its Latakia base the modern S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that can hit airborne targets 400 km away. The safe haven plan now seems a lost-cause.

But from Mr Erdogan’s perspective, this is only a temporary setback. Beyond curbing Kurdish aspirations, he and his colleagues in the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) share a broader vision of re-gaining territories lost to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century: in Syria, these include northern Latakia and the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, which adjoin the Turkish province of Hatay on the Mediterranean.

Alastair Crooke, the distinguished commentator on West Asian politics, quotes Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying in 2009, before he assumed public office: “We are the new Ottomans… Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands between 2011 and 2023.” He believes that this vision explains Turkey’s settlement of ethnic Turks in northern Syria so that a veritable “Turkiisation of northwest Syria” can be achieved; as also its cooperation with jihadi forces to achieve regime change in Damascus.

The pursuit of this neo-Ottoman dream promises more death and destruction in Syria.

“Turkey lashed out at the Russians in the hope that this would mobilise the Nato and prevent further Russian assaults on non-ISIS targets. It seems Erdogan miscalculated the resilience of the Russia-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance and the threat that his Nato allies see in ISIS.”


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