Belmont Club

Syria Risks Becoming Erdogan's Vietnam

Syria Risks Becoming Erdogan's Vietnam
Turkish troops (Wikipedia)

Turkey’s border offensive against the Kurds, far from being a blitzkrieg, is limited by the resources available to Ankara’s forces. According to DW, its goal is to bring a 15,360- square kilometer swath under its control. “Turkey wants to create a 32-kilometer-deep, 480-kilometer-long corridor (20 miles deep, 300 miles long) inside Syria along the border to protect its security… it plans to resettle nearly 1 million of its 3.6 million Syrian refugees who hail from other parts of Syria inside the ‘safe zone.'” But it must do so by installment and on a shoestring.

The regular Turkish army will provide armor, artillery, and air support, but it relies on militia forces for “boots.” DW continues, “in reality, a buffer zone may only extend several kilometers inside Syria and be formed around several pockets, and the operation conducted in stages. Turkey plans to use a motley group of its Syrian rebel allies to do much of the ground fighting and holding of territory.”

Some idea of the character of the Turkish operation can be obtained from the previous Operation Olive Branch against Afrin, which involved about 20-30,000 men on either side. Although it started in January 2018, the 2,000-square kilometer operation is still ongoing. Turks have not fully beaten down the continuing YPG (Kurdish) insurgency. The new Turkish offensive, aimed at subduing an area seven times bigger, may take longer to take and pacify. In the end, the shallowness of the thrust and reliance on proxy infantry means Ankara will have another enclave it has to defend.

Although the operation is primarily seen as a threat to the Kurds, it also poses considerable risks to Erdogan.”Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria inspired domestic support for the country’s armed forces, but also skepticism, fear, and anger in a politically divided country that perceives it has already suffered greatly because of the continuing eight-year conflict to its southeast. But the president’s Syria policies have also begun to badly hurt him and his allies politically, as economic troubles exacerbate long-simmering Turkish animosity towards Arabic-speaking Syrians.”

In other words, Syria risks becoming Erdogan’s Vietnam. The Independent writes:

Turkey is already fighting a guerilla war against the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in its own southeast provinces. Expanding the ground war into Syria against the PKK’s allies risks sparking a separate insurgency. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the collection of Kurdish-led armed groups partnered with the US in its fight against Isis, said it was “determined to defend our land at all costs” against Turkey.

“What makes Turkey think they’re not going to get caught in northern Syria fighting a protracted campaign?” said Steven Cook, a Turkey and Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. … “They’re really exposed going deeper into Syrian territory,” said Mr Cook. “And they’re not going to get any help. If Erdogan gets into trouble, the cavalry is not coming to the rescue.”

Far from being primarily a Kurdish problem, Turkey’s offensive underscores the unresolved threat of Syria to the region’s security. Europe may be hesitant to take a forceful position because it is terrified of a new flood of migrants into the continent. “Greece’s prime minister accused Turkey on Friday of appearing to ‘exploit’ Europe’s migrant crisis for its own ends and said Ankara could and should control migrant flows to the continent.”

Greece, the route into the European Union for nearly a million refugees and migrants in 2015, is dealing with a new and steep rise in people crossing the Aegean to its islands from neighboring Turkey after a relative three-year lull.

The influx has piled pressure on its hugely overcrowded migrant camps and prompted the new conservative government to announce a stricter policy to curb the flows, which includes tightening its borders and deporting more people.

“I want to be absolutely clear,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament. “Turkey… must also assume its responsibility.”

Recently CBS News highlighted overcrowding at an ominously named refugee camp called Moria. “No solution.” Resettling them in the buffer zone may not be what Europe intended, but that is certainly what Erdogan wants to happen. The irony is that it may wind up backfiring on the Turkish president. The Ahval newspaper writes: “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is fighting for his own political survival by launching a war in Syria with the Kurds.”

Escalating tension in Syria is the only option Erdoğan has, as he is no longer able to win support through the usual peaceful means such as a building the economy, providing welfare, the rule of law and a free society.

In the last three years, Erdoğan has attempted to regain support with extraordinary economic measures such as the distribution of cheap credit and aggressive public infrastructure investment. Though some of those populist tactics worked for a while, none provided a solution to structural economic problems such as unemployment and inflation.

As the New York Times recently pointed out, “Turkey’s currency remains battered, while its foreign debts remain vast. Inflation and joblessness are alarmingly high. Economic growth is minimal, and anxiety considerable amid the sense that more trouble lies ahead.” Erdogan can bite, but can he hold? Ankara’s ultimate victory is not a given.

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