Turkey’s Erdoğan wins from Syria offensive, but who loses?

With the first death of a Turkish soldier in the invasion of northeast Syria (or incursion if you prefer President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s term), we have a reminder of the serious consequences of this foreign adventure initiated by its long-dominant leader. 

Much more than his U.S. counterpart, Erdoğan shows himself committed to pursuing his agenda regardless of the risks to Turkey’s foreign relations, internal stability, or indeed the lives of its servicemen.

Erdoğan likes to be in control of events, and has successfully pursued acquiescence from U.S. President Donald Trump for his military foray into Syria for well over a year. He was knocking on an open door as Trump had long made it clear that he wanted to bring U.S. troops home from the Middle East and was willing to give Turkey a free hand in Syria. 

Erdoğan is quite willing to place Turkish soldiers in harm’s way, not to increase security for Turkey, but to secure his hold on power, which he sees under increasing threat from the alliance of opposition parties working with the main pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

To maintain control of the political situation in Turkey, Erdoğan must split the opposition alliance from the HDP and its voters. There is no better way to do this than to portray the HDP as aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fought an armed campaign for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Erdoğan portrays the Syrian Kurdish group that controls northeast Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as nothing more than a branch of the PKK, an easy argument to make given the links between the two organisations.

Erdoğan meanwhile says he respects Kurds who are not linked to the PKK/YPG.

The argument resonates well in Turkey, forcing the HDP into an uncomfortable dilemma - going along with its new Turkish opposition allies and lose the support of many Kurdish voters in Turkey, or break from its new allies and strengthen Erdoğan’s hold on power. 

On the battlefield in Syria, Erdoğan will be able to maintain control of events. A few deaths among the ranks of Turkish soldiers will not be enough to weaken political support for action against the YPG.  That said, the deaths of dozens or hundreds of Turkish soldiers in Syria might begin to raise questions about why Turkey is fighting there.

Pundits might note that before the latest operation, Kurdish fighters in Syria had scrupulously avoided confrontations with Turkish forces in Syria and not launched attacks on Turkish soil, so why go after them instead of the PKK in southeast Turkey?

Erdoğan can manage the risks by limiting the duration and the depth of the invasion/incursion, relying on Turkish-backed Syrian militia to carry out close combat operations, and by using air strikes on YPG positions that have no air defences. 

Of course, close combat between militia forces and the YPG will likely result in high casualties, including among civilians, but as long as they are not Turks dying in foreign fields, Erdoğan will be politically secure. The same goes for the air attacks that could lead to high civilian casualties.

Will the YPG and the PKK mount coordinated attacks inside Turkey, to raise the price for Erdoğan’s military adventurism? That is unlikely, as it would undermine their ongoing efforts to garner support from the international community to restrain the Turkish military. This support depends on portraying Turkish military action as an attack on Syrian Kurds not as an attack on PKK/YPG terrorists. The YPG military response will be directed at Turkish assets and partners in Syria, not in Turkey. At least, that is what Erdoğan is counting on, and he is probably right. 

But there is little the EU or others can do other than issue calls for Turkish forces to avoid civilian casualties. Not because of Erdoğan’s threat to send over three million refugees in Turkey to Europe, but because of their concerns about what Erdoğan might do with ISIS foreign fighters if he gets his hands on them. It is widely believed, for good reason, that Turkey turned a blind eye, and perhaps facilitated, the movement of foreign fighters through Turkey into Syria. While not all of these joined ISIS, many did. How would Erdoğan use these fighters if he gained control over them?  Demand their home countries take them back? Incorporate them into existing Turkey-backed Syrian militias? 

Unless Erdoğan allows the Turkish military, not its client militias in Syria, to get bogged down in a conflict that results in a steady, long-term stream of casualties and repeated funerals in Turkey of soldiers killed abroad, his domestic political position is secure.

The EU as well as most of the U.S. Congress sees Turkish military’s actions in Syria as an attack on anti-ISIS forces and Syrian Kurds in general, not a necessary action against a threat to Turkey from the YPG. They are right of course, for the YPG does not have the capacity to threaten Turkey or harm its security in any measurable way. Regardless of his efforts to portray the YPG as a branch of the PKK, EU and the U.S. Congress remain convinced he is attacking the Kurds, not simply the relatively small number of them who are terrorists. 

Turkey will reap condemnation and opprobrium from the EU and many legislatures of democratic countries, with negative impacts on the Turkish economy. Foreign investors will postpone or cancel planned investments or expansions of existing operations in Turkey. 

With the exception of Qatar, Arab states will either quietly or loudly condemn the Turkish action seen by some as neo-Ottomanism on the march. But condemnations might not lead to sanctions or any other action needed to restrain Erdoğan’s military adventure. 

More likely, Erdoğan will portray foreign condemnation as proof of the anti-Turkish bias of the EU and the West. The majority of Turks will go along wit that assertion, even when the economic malaise intensifies, which Erdoğan already blames on the West’s anti-Turkey conspiracy. The stark reality is that absent a combination of economic collapse and high casualties there would not be much chance of a grand alliance to undo Erdoğan’s grip on power. No reasonable person wishes for either of those two things. 

In sum, Erdoğan wins, but who loses? Turkish soldiers lose, democratic pluralism in Turkey loses, Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians lose, internal political stability in Turkey loses, positive regional political relations lose. 

Most of all, Turks lose hope for democratic development within their country, for improved relations with neighbours and the resulting economic benefits, for an end to national policy-setting for the benefit of a few, or of one, over the interests of the nation.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.