Why President Erdoğan won’t be Russian to send troops into Syria

WORLD by Gwynne Dyer

dyer“We will defend Aleppo: all of Turkey stands behind its defenders” —Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Wednesday, Feb. 10

“Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation [into Syria] by land” —Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmed Çavuşoğlu, Saturday, Feb. 13

“There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria” —Turkish Defence Minister İsmet Yılmaz, Sunday, Feb. 14

Between Wednesday of last week and Valentine’s Sunday night, the Turkish government, in league with Saudi Arabia, made a tentative decision to enter the war on the ground in Syria — and then got cold feet about it. Or, more likely, the Turkish army simply told the government that it would not invade Syria and risk the possibility of a shooting war with the Russians.

The Turkish government bears a large share of the responsibility for the devastating Syrian civil war. From the start Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister and now president, was publicly committed to overthrowing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. For five years he has kept Turkey’s border with Syria open so that arms, money and volunteers can flow across to feed the rebellion.

Erdoğan’s hatred of Assad is rooted in the fact that he is a militant Sunni Muslim while Assad leads a regime dominated by Shia Muslims. Both men rule countries that are officially secular, but Erdoğan’s long-term goal is to impose Islamic religious rule on Turkey. Assad is defending the multi-ethnic, multi-faith traditional character of Syrian society — while also running a brutally repressive regime. Neither man gives a fig for democracy.

Erdoğan’s main ally in the task of turning Syria into a Sunni-ruled Islamic state (although 30 per cent of Syrians are not Sunni Muslims) is Saudi Arabia. Together these countries and some smaller Gulf states worked to subvert the original non-violent movement in Syria that was demanding a secular democracy, and then armed and supplied the Sunni-dominated armed rebellion that replaced it.

The U.S. government also wanted to see Assad’s regime destroyed (for strategic reasons, not religious ones). So for years Washington turned a blind eye to the fact that its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were actually supporting the extremists of Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.

Largely as a result of that support, these two extremist organizations now completely dominate the Syrian revolt against Assad’s rule, accounting for 80-90 per cent of the active fighters. Turkey and Saudi Arabia finally broke their ties with Islamic State last year, but they still back the Nusra Front, which has camouflaged itself behind an array of minor “moderate” groups in the so-called “Army of Islam”.

When the Nusra Front, with increased Turkish and Saudi support, overran much of northwestern Syria last spring, Russia finally went to the aid of its long-standing ally, the Syrian government. Russian air power helped the Syrian army push back the troops of both the Nusra Front and Islamic State, and Erdoğan was so irked by this that he actually had Turkish fighters shoot down a Russian bomber last November.

It was clear at the time that the Turkish army was very unhappy about the prospect of a military clash with Russia. It does not share Erdoğan’s dream of an Islamist-ruled Syria either. So the Russian bombs kept falling, the Syrian army went on advancing, and now it has cut the main supply line from Turkey to the rebels in and around Aleppo.

This angered Erdoğan greatly, and he now has an equally reckless ally in Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi deputy Crown Prince and defence minister. Over the past week, these two men appear to have talked themselves into a limited military incursion into Syria to push the regime’s troops back and reopen the supply lines to the rebels.

This would also have allowed the Turkish army to whack the Syrian Kurds, who are building a de facto independent state in the Kurdish-majority territory along Turkey’s southern border. (Erdoğan is already at war with Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalists, having broken a four-year truce with them last summer.)

On Saturday the Turkish army began shelling Syrian Kurdish forces, and on Sunday Assad’s government objected to the UN about a hundred “Turkish soldiers or mercenaries” who had crossed the border into Syria. At which point the grown-ups took over, and the Turkish defence minister denied that there was any intention to invade Syria.

France publicly warned Turkey to end its attacks on Saturday, and there were doubtless secret but frantic warnings to the same effect from Turkey’s other NATO allies. Turkey (and Saudi Arabia) have almost certainly been put on notice that if they choose to start a local war with Russian forces in Syria, they will have to fight it alone.

So that is probably the end of that, and everybody can get back to the business of partitioning Syria — which is what all the talk of a “cessation of hostilities” is really about.