The Syrian regime army's recent pullout from Kurdish-dominated areas in the north has made alarm bells go off in Ankara, which received on Saturday an apparent backing from Washington for a potential military operation inside Syria.
When the crisis in Syria erupted in mid-March 2011, it was quickly felt next door in Turkey, where refugees began to arrive in flight from the bloody crackdown.
Turkish President Abdullah Gül announced in early May 2011 that his country was preparing for “a worst case scenario,” apparently referring to the possibility of a large influx of refugees through the long border his nation shares with Syria.
But as Syria’s crisis deepened, Turkey started to face even more alarming developments and its patience began to erode, challenging its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy that promotes diplomatic approaches and soft power.
Syrian regime forces have shelled areas inside Turkish borders on several occasions and shot down one Turkish fighter plane last June. The move that worries Ankara most, however, was the regime’s recent decision to pull Syrian forces out from Kurdish-dominated border areas, in a move that will likely be exploited by the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that has launched numerous deadly attacks, mostly from bases in northern Iraq, in the cause of a separatist Kurdish state.
Despite having reportedly provided training grounds for armed Syrian opposition forces and allowed the transfer of weapons from various foreign parties to the Free Syrian Army, Turkey claims to have maintained its overall soft power policy vis-à-vis Syria. Throughout the 17-month uprising in Syria, Turkey provided humanitarian assistance to refugees, diplomatic support to the opposition and helped escalate pressures on the President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
But this soft power policy appeared to be in tatters recently after Kurdish fighters took control of the Kurdish-dominated areas in the northern part of Syria. Initial reports suggested that the regime’s forces were driven out by armed opposition Kurdish fighters, but subsequent reports pointed out that the Assad’s regime deliberately handed those areas to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) linked to PKK, which is fighting an armed struggle against Turkey.
Some observers say Turkey will not tolerate the Kurdish control of northern parts of Syria and is quickly moving toward a sweeping military intervention there. But others argue that such a development in Syria is unlikely to draw Turkey into a potentially damaging war.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed that his country would “not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey."
Erdogan’s statements signaled the likelihood of a direct military engagement of Turkey in the Syrian crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Turkey on Saturday, expressed Washington’s support for Ankara’s position by declaring that “Syria must not become a haven for PKK terrorists.”
Clinton told a news conference in Istanbul that the United States and Turkey were setting up a joint group “to get into the real details of… very intensive operational planning."
Othman Ali, head of the Turkish-Kurdish Studies Center in Iraq, recently wrote in Today’s Zaman, “Turkey cannot afford to see the PKK roam freely in Syria and use it as a base from which to launch armed attacks on the country.”
“The Syrian president had decided it was time to play the PKK card against Turkey once again as was its policy in the 1990s,” Ali added.
Turkey and Syria came to the brink of war in 1998, after it emerged that Damascus was providing shelter for PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.
Abdallah Schleifer, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. told Al Arabiya that a Turkish military engagement in Syria “whether as a sincere concern for domestic Turkish security or a convenient justification for direct intervention... is a very strong possibility.”
Indications of an eminent Turkish military engagement in Syria gained further support from reports suggesting that large Turkish troops’ deployment was taking place near the border with Syria. Amateur YouTube videos showed military equipment being moved by trains to the border with Syria.
But such moves might as well be more of a demonstration of power and a message to Kurdish activists in Syria than a run-up to a direct large-scale military operation, which could be costly and damaging to Turkey’s international image.
Ilnoor Shafiq, an Ankara-based political analyst, ruled out any large-scale military operation in Syria, saying Turkey would only interfere as part of an international alliance against Syria, but never unilaterally – there was little appetite to part with Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy.
“If there are any incursions by Kurdish fighters across the border, Turkey might respond with by pursuing them, but we will not see any large scale operation taking place,” Shafiq said.