Turkey changes the rules of the game with Syria intervention

Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says Turkey’s intervention in Syria has caught all actors in the conflict unawares, especially the Americans.

The fate of President Bashar al-Assad is no longer the central issue in the Syrian crisis, at least not for the foreseeable future. Turkey’s direct military intervention in north-eastern Syria and its occupation of the border town of Jarablush has taken centre-stage. It has changed the rules of the game and created new political and military conditions that could prolong the crisis and put proposals for a political solution on hold for months if not years.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to have out-smarted all the players in the Syrian conflict, including his new Russian and old American allies. He took calculated diplomatic steps to neutralize their potential opposition before embarking on his risky military adventure. He went to Moscow and reconciled with President Vladimir Putin; he flew to Iran to ask for its mediation with the regime in Damascus; he got his prime minister to hint that Turkey could live with the idea of Assad remaining in power; and he fully normalised relations with Israel which has a long association with the Kurds.

The Turkish military intervention has left all concerned in what can best be descried as a state of shock. It is no exaggeration to say that some have still not recovered enough to react, let alone make plans for dealing with the consequences. The official reactions that have been forthcoming, whether public or attributed, indicate that everyone was caught unawares.

American dilemma

The players facing the worst dilemma are, indisputably, the Americans.

When Erdoğan tried, prior to his incursion into Syria, to make them choose between his country and the Kurds, they opted for the latter. As they saw it, the Kurds were fierce combatants who could be relied upon to fight ISIS. They proved themselves by preventing the fall of Ain al-Arab (Kobani), and again when they ejected ISIS from Manbij, so they could be counted on to play the major role in the forthcoming battle for al-Raqqa.

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The United States has supported the Kurds
The United States has supported the Kurds

But now the US administration finds itself having to weigh up the consequences of abandoning the Kurds as allies after just a few months, despite all the services they rendered, in deference to the new facts on the ground created by the Turkish president in Jarablus.

When US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Ankara two weeks ago, he all but raised the white flag of surrender to his Turkish hosts.

He apologized for not coming earlier, threatened to stop aiding the Kurds if they do not accede to Erdoğan’s demand to withdraw east of the Euphrates, and voiced support for Turkey’s stance on Syria and understanding of its concerns there.

Changing priorities

Priorities in the Syrian war are changing fast these days – from destroying ISIS as the biggest threat, to containing Kurdish ambitions to establish an independent entity along the Syrian-Turkish border — or rather, we are now faced with a multitude of conflicting and clashing priorities.

The role of the Free Syrian Army and its various ‘moderate’ or ‘Islamic’ components has also changed. They were set up and provided with US, Arab and Turkish aid in order to depose Assad but they have been turned into proxies of the Turkish military, fighting mostly to serve the goals and regional agenda of the Turkish state, above all to thwart Kurdish separatist ambitions.

The Turkish incursion, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, aims at creating new realities on the ground. This includes setting up a military base at Jarablus similar to that established in the Bashiqa area in northern Iraq. Work has begun on building a runway there. As in Iraq, the impression is that the facility on Syrian soil is intended to be permanent – removable only by force.

Turkish president Erdogan
Turkish president Erdogan

Surprisingly, the losses sustained by the Turkish forces which took Jarablus were confined to one tank and one soldier. They did not engage in a head-on confrontation with ISIS, which withdrew to nearby al-Bab. This has raised many questions about possible secret understandings or collusion between the two sides.


It is hard to dispute Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim’s assertion that the Turkish army’s occupation of Jarablus was aimed not at ISIS but the Kurds. More disputable is his prediction that the move will prove highly costly for Turkey – to which Erdoğan retorted that the biggest cost would be borne by the Kurds. In reality, both sides stand to lose by getting embroiled in a war that may prove protracted, could drag in a host of other parties directly or by proxy, and which no side would be able to win decisively.

Ultimately, however, Turkey stands to suffer more simply because it has more to lose, whether economically, in casualties or in terms of its standing as a regional superpower. Their Kurdish enemies, in contrast, have no state and no economy, and have been living with wars of one kind or another for the past 80 years.

Whatever deceptions Erdoğan may have engaged in with the Russians and Iranians, and possibly the Syrian government too, there can be no doubting that the Americans have deceived the Kurds. As things stand, they show every sign of sacrificing them and selling them out to the Turks in order to serve their own interests. This should come as no surprise to people in the region, especially the US’s Arab allies and particularly those in the Gulf, who have long experience of such duplicity.

Arguably the only party in the region not to have been subject to double-crossing and back-stabbing by the US is its ally Israel. But the Kurds, like the Arabs, have regrettably failed to learn from the lessons of history, and keep stumbling into the same pitfalls. This time Turkey may be joining them, as it inches its way — via Jarablus, with Manbij and al-Bab perhaps to follow — into the bloody quagmire of Syria.

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