Turkey's dislike of the Kurds will push the country into Assad's arms
Revolutions may be born from principles, but they die from policies. So far in the Syrian civil war, Russia and the Assad regime have been the coldest, most calculating partners. But now, as the war spins into a new phase, Turkey is rediscovering its old pragmatism.
Reading the tea leaves of the civil war, Ankara now believes the kaleidoscope of rebels arrayed against the regime in Damascus cannot, in their current form, win. That leaves only a handful of possible outcomes and Ankara is now choosing its least bad outcome. That calculation led its ground troops, last week, to cross the border into Syria – much to the celebration of Syrian rebels and their supporters.
But such celebration is premature. Far from signalling the start of a concerted military effort by Turkey against the regime in Damascus, the incursion is actually a capitulation to a brutal reality: Ankara has accepted that Bashar Al Assad is staying for the foreseeable future.
To understand why, look at the Syrian rebel groups that Turkey fought alongside in Jarabulus, the Syrian town liberated from ISIL last week. Turkey took them from parts of western Syria and bussed them through its territory to the battle for Jarabulus. Most of their names will not be recognisable to anyone outside Syrian policy circles – and most Syrians would not know who they are either. That's because almost the only thing that the various rebel groups can agree on is that Assad must go. And about the only thing the various outside powers can agree on is that Mr Al Assad cannot go just yet.
That puts Turkey in a political twilight zone: unwilling to accept Mr Al Assad as the leader of Syria, but unable to assemble a coalition of rebel groups to defeat him. There are many bad options in Syria, but for Turkey perhaps the worst would be the “Iraq option”, the division of Syria into ethnic enclaves, as is happening in Iraq.
That appeared to be happening, and to stop it, Turkey crossed the border. Because while Turkey would prefer anyone in Damascus rather than Mr Al Assad, even Islamists, it would prefer anyone except the Kurds on its border – even Mr Al Assad. Such are the contorted calculations that five years of war have brought.
The real losers in this latest phase are likely to be the Kurds. Syria’s Kurds have played an at least ambiguous role in the uprising against Mr Al Assad.
For many years, they were quiet, seeing no real benefit in joining other Syrian groups in the revolution. They were tacitly allowed more power and, looking to their fellow Kurds across the border in Iraq, began to consider carving out a separate Kurdish area along Syria’s northern border, connecting various Kurdish-majority enclaves.
Amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, this was the best the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish party, could hope for. If they could rule a strip along the northern border, they could carve out a de facto state and perhaps in time strike a deal with Damascus, keeping the border quiet while the regime focused on breaking the rebellion.
If that seemed like a good plan for the Syrian Kurds, it is an impossible one for Turkey. The three-decade long insurgency by the Kurdish PKK restarted two years ago and has been supported by the PYD across the border. Having a de facto Kurdish state on its border supporting the PKK waging an insurgency inside its cities is not a situation Turkey – or indeed any country – could tolerate.
Ankara looked at the likely outcomes in Syria – an ethnic division like Iraq, an Islamist takeover like Egypt or a rumbling civil war like Lebanon in the past – and decided one was far worse. By crossing the border, Ankara is ensuring the ethnic division of Syria won’t happen.
The incursion also displays a cynicism on the part of the Turks towards the politics of Syria, by leaving the Syrian Kurds in a precarious position. Because the Kurds, for so long quiet during the revolution, have now been set at odds with the Assad regime, which attacked the Kurdish region this month for the first time. The Kurds could have accepted the regime as an enemy as a price worth paying to gain a contiguous state. But now, thanks to Turkey, they have the enemy but not the state. Biding their time, Ankara outmanoeuvred the Syrian Kurds.
None of this is cause for celebration. Because by seeking to stop one reality from forming, Turkey has accepted another, that the Assad regime will stay in Damascus well into 2017. If Ankara thought there was any possibility of new leadership in Damascus any time soon, it would have waited and negotiated for the Syrian Kurds to return east of the Euphrates.
It did not because, short of a surprising new development – and in Syria’s war, nothing can be ruled out – the war will continue rumbling in its current form for at least another year, until Washington’s new president gets his or her feet under the desk. If that dismays, frightens and angers Syrians and those who support their revolution, it should. The cold pragmatism of politics and geography have trumped the idealism of a revolution and solidarity with the oppressed.
In the past few days, one Syrian town, Daraya, has returned to the regime, and another, Jarabulus, has been taken over by the rebels. But this is not a stalemate. The direction of travel is only pointing one way.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: August 29, 2016 04:00 AM