Armed with fighter jets, tanks, and Syrian rebel proxies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has opened yet another wound in Syria. Already complex, Turkish ground presence in the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin threatens to push Syria’s civil war into a new phase of turmoil and bloodshed. Erdogan’s decision to send an invading force to repel YPG fighters from Turkey’s borders is enormously significant, and demonstrates exactly where Turkey’s foreign policy future lies.
Make no mistake, the addition of Turkish troops to the melee serves not only to complicate matters, but in all likelihood aggravate them too. This is not least thanks to the positioning of the United States, the most powerful ally of both Turkey and the Kurdish YPG militia, until now the most effective fighting force against Islamic State on the ground.
In light of these developments, President Trump has since been keen to downplay the American support for the YPG, though refusing to equate the YPG with the PKK, who have been engaged in a thirty-year conflict with the Turkish state. Instead, Trump urged Turkey to ‘exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces’. Unfortunately, it’s a little late for that.
A useful leg for Turkey to stand on here is the good working relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the ruling body in northern Iraq. Though useful for any Turk wishing to dismiss allegations of systematic xenophobia against all things Kurdish, it is easy to see why such a relationship is worth maintaining for Erdogan.
As well as supplies of oil from a landlocked neighbour (what luck!), the KRG and in particular the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party provide a fantastic prop for domestic relations with Turkey’s own Kurds. Erdogan has focused much of his rapprochement efforts on the Iraqi Kurds rather than the PKK themselves, and as such one has to doubt the sincerity of such progress. It is far easier, I assume, to organise a photo shoot with Masoud Barzani than it is to fix a century of structural cruelty against 25% of your own population.
As well as the risk of upsetting his most important ally, Erdogan has laid bare the true focus of his foreign policy. In other areas Turkey has been unpredictable, with its relationships with Russia and the US springing to mind, but one focus has been consistent throughout tumultuous domestic conditions within Turkey: the opposition to any Syrian Kurdish successes.
Three years is a long time in Syria, but it was only three years ago that Turkish tanks sat on the border and watched as Kobani was put under siege by Islamic State militants for over three months. Contrast to this week, when under no immediate pressure, Turkey launched the oh-so-inappropriately-named Operation Olive Branch to clear YPG fighters from the very area they defended against Islamic State.
One thing is clear from this chaos: Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish independence movement as an existential threat to its existence. With that in mind, it perhaps seems obvious why Erdogan has chosen to mobilise against the YPG in Syria. After all, this is NATO’s second-largest army engaging with a stateless militia, and who wouldn’t take a chance on those odds with the stakes supposedly so high?
The answer to that question lies with the other players in the Middle East, most notably the United States. Just as with Iraq, the US is yet to lay out a truly workable goal for either state. In both cases, the US has been reticent to support the redrawing of boundaries, instead focusing its efforts on the type of governments that run the region. Worryingly for Erdogan, the biggest impact of Turkey’s incursion could well be the rethinking of that support.