Erdogan plays nationalist card with Syrian push against Kurds
Turkey challenging Nato partners and ramping up regional tensions with neighbours
Turkish tanks advance near the Syria border as Turkey shelled Kurdish militia targets in Syria and claimed progress in a cross-border offensive that has raised concern among its allies and neighbours. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, is determined to prevent US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from securing control of a wide band of territory along the entire Turkish-Syrian border and from establishing an autonomous entity in northern Syria.
Turkey launched its offensive after the US announced its intention to recruit 30,000 mainly Kurdish fighters as a “border force” to defend territory captured by the YPG since 2015. Ankara considers the YPG an offshoot of the separatist Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been battling the Turkish army since 1984. In that, Turkey is correct.
Veteran PKK commanders and fighters have joined the battle against Islamic State in Syria and the PKK strongly influences the Syrian Kurdish leadership.
Since the founding of the modern Turkish state in 1922, Ankara has done its utmost to smother nationalism among its Kurds – 20 per cent of Turkey’s population – and has opposed the creation of Kurdish entities on Turkey’s borders as dangerous examples for Turkish Kurds.
Turkey feared the 1991 US proclamation of a Kurdish “safe haven” in northern Iraq and the area’s transformation into an autonomous region after the 2003 US occupation. When Iraqi Kurds proclaimed independence last year, Ankara helped Baghdad to isolate the region and rescind its autonomy.
After assuming power in 2003, Erdogan appealed to Turkish Kurds as fellow Muslims to make peace and to unite with ethnic Turks. Hostilities resumed in 2015 when the Turkish army mounted a fierce offensive against the PKK and Erdogan shifted from religious inclusiveness to ethnic Turkish nationalism. As he faces presidential and parliamentary elections next year, he will play the Turkish nationalist card by taking a tough line against all Kurds.
Although the current military offensive is against Afrin, Erdogan intends to expand its scope eastwards to the town of Manbij with the objective of driving YPG forces out of Syrian territory west of the Euphrates river. He accuses the US of failing to effect YPG withdrawal from Manbij, which was seized from Islamic State in 2016. Once Manbij has fallen, Turkey will threaten a military push into the YPG enclave in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces east of the Euphrates.
Turkey has two strategic military objectives: to oust Kurdish forces from the Turkish-Syrian border and to create a Turkish administered YPG “no go zone” in Syria where Syrian refugees can be settled and Free Syrian Army proxies can be based.
To achieve these goals, Erdogan has challenged its Nato partners – the US, UK, and France – which have co-operated in the formation of the Syrian Kurdish forces, and has put pressure on the US to scrap its plan to deploy Kurdish surrogates in northeastern Syria as a counterweight to Russia’s permanent naval and air bases in the west along the coast.
While Ankara’s ties with Nato and the US are strained, Turkey remains the West’s indispensable eastern ally and it cannot break with Erdogan.
Al-Qaeda offshoots have refused to halt hostilities, prompting Syrian government forces, supported by Russian air power, to launch an offensive to retake Idlib, risking clashes with Turkey’s army and a rupture in relations between Moscow and Ankara.
They are at odds as Turkey wants to use Idlib as a base to attack government-held areas or as political leverage with the aim of toppling Russia’s ally President Bashar al-Assad.