Russian intervention signals the end of Erdogan's Syria policy

Russian intervention signals the end of Erdogan's Syria policy
Comment: The Turkish premier has been forced to abandon his plans to oust Assad, writes Yvo Fitzherbert.
5 min read
08 Oct, 2015
Turkey said that Russian jets have violated its airspace several times this week [Anadolu]

On September 30, Russia announced its presence in Syria by conducting the first Kremlin airstrikes on the village of Zafarana, north of Homs, as well as on the town of Lataminah, in the Hama province.

One of the groups targeted was Tajammu al-Izzah, an important member of the FSA and one of the few groups to have received anti-tank missiles which have been used frequently against the Syrian army.

It quickly became clear that Russia was not targeting the Islamic State group, but instead groups which have had major successes against the Assad regime over the past few months.

Such an intervention from Russia will be vital in cementing Assad's grip on Syria, and will undoubtedly reverse the string of defeats that have been inflicted on Assad.

Since March, the Syrian rebels have slowly been encroaching on territory that had previously seemed secure for Assad. The Fattah Army, which includes the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, seized the town of Iblib in March - followed by the rest of the province - in May this year.

The north-west province of Idlib has long been considered a gateway to the coastal Latakia region, a predominately Alawite province that has always been Assad's stronghold.

Such a move complicates matters for Turkey, which has been instrumental in supplying the rebels with the necessary military firepower to change the tide against Assad in north-west Syria.

Alongside Saudi Arabia, which has supported the rebels in the south of Syria, Turkey and Qatar have aided many different rebel factions in the north.

The end of the no-fly zone

From early on in the Syrian uprising, Erdogan became an outspoken opponent of Assad, vigorously supported the opposition and called for his immediate removal from power.

The logic of the ruling AK Party at the time was that Assad's fall from power was inevitable, and they believed that if they supported the rebels, alongside the Gulf states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Assad would fall within the year.

As the war dragged on, Erdogan's fixation on Assad's removal never diminished. When the world's attention focused on "degrading and destroying" IS last year, the Turkish government insisted that targeting the Islamic State group alone would not solve the crisis - as Assad was the root of the problem.

Without Assad, Turkey argued, the Islamic State group would not have flourished the way it did in Syria.

Alongside these developments, the Syrian Kurds, aided by the US-led anti-IS coalition, stepped out of the shadows and became a dominant force within Syria's multi-layered conflict.

Erdogan expressed concern of the increased success the Syrian Kurds were having against the Islamic State group when the Kurds captured the border town of Tel Abyad earlier this year.

He claimed that Turkey would never allow a "Kurdish State in Syria" on its border and said that YPG - the Kurdish militia fighting the Islamic State group- were the same as IS itself.

Ankara has long sought to convince western powers over the need to establish a no-fly zone. This no-fly zone would act as a base for the moderate opposition to launch offensives against Assad, as well as acting as a safe area where refugees could seek refuge.

However, Ankara's suggestion of implementing a no-fly zone between Jarablus and Azaz in northern Syria was directly between the two Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Kobane.

The Syrian Kurds have long expressed their desire to unite these cantons with a corridor, much like they did between Kobane and the western Kurdish canton of Cezire when they seized Tel Abyad from the Islamic State group in June.

It became increasingly clear that Erdogan was hoping to block the aspirations of the Kurdish groups, which he views as the same as the PKK - the Kurdish separatists who have waged an armed struggle against Turkey since 1984.

While such a plan was considered viable against Assad's air-force, such a plan has been scuppered by the recent Russian intervention, as Moscow has have rejected such a proposal.

Erdogan's continuous Syrian headache

At home, Erdogan is struggling to hold the kind of commanding power he had previously been used to.

In June, Erdogan's party failed to gain an outright majority in elections for the first time since it rose to power in 2002. Having failed to achieve the result he wanted, Erdogan has called fresh elections in November, as well as resuming military operations against the PKK, in the hope that such attacks will garner support from the nationalist sector of Turkish society.

Alongside his failed Kurdish strategy, which saw him lose a substantial base of support amongst Kurds in the June elections, his foreign policy in Syria has been a major bone of contention for opposition parties across the political spectrum.

Wary of the increased jihadist presence in Turkey, especially after an Islamic State group militant killed 34 pro-Kurdish activists in the town of Suruc this July, Erdogan has been criticised for turning a blind eye to jihadist activity within Turkey, as well as directly supporting other elements of the Syrian opposition.

Furthermore, Erdogan's open-door policy towards Syrian refugees has added to such tensions. Many Turks look down on Syrians, fearful of an "Islamisation" of Turkey - and discriminatory attacks on Syrians have been on the rise.

With Turkey in a period of economic stagnancy, Erdogan has increasingly faced a barrage of criticism for dragging the country into a volatile Middle East.

A major reason why Erdogan is powerless to respond to Russian aggression comes from Ankara's reliance on Moscow's gas - 58 percent of Turkey's natural gas is imported from Russia.

Erdogan even suggested that Assad could be part of Syria during a transition period, marking a U-turn from his previously staunch opposition to any plans for Assad to remain in power.

Erdogan has also lost the air of invincibility that he once commanded. Wary of his desire to become more embroiled in the Syria war, Turkey's armed forces (TSK) defied the government this week by announcing that it would not enter Syria without UN or NATO approval.

Such a statement not only shows the increasing distance and distrust that the military has for Erdogan, but also shows how the president cannot rely on the obedience of his nation.

Across Turkey, Erdogan's vulnerability has been carefully monitored, and leaves the president with little choice but to nod along to Russia's plans.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.