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Erdogan’s invasion of Syria may come back to haunt him

Oct 15,2019 - Last updated at Oct 15,2019

Less than a week after Turkish troops and Syrian allies moved into northern Syria, much of what pundits predicted would happen had already come true. More than 130,000 Syrians have been displaced so far as a result of the invasion while reports confirmed that Syrian militias, fighting under the banner of the Syrian Free Army (SFA), have carried out extrajudicial executions of Kurdish fighters, including a key political leader. Hundreds of captured Daesh fighters have escaped as most American Special Forces were ordered to leave.
The Turkish operation, aimed at creating a 400-kilometre-long and 32-kilometre-deep safe zone inside Syrian territory, was sanctioned by President Donald Trump following a telephone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week. Trump’s move had shocked Syrian Kurdish allies as well as Pentagon officials and Congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Turkey’s goals are clear: To crush the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and drive them deep into the desert. But Erdogan’s gambit is likely to backfire.
Here is a view of how developments may unfold in the coming days and weeks:
Turkey and Syrian Kurds: Feeling betrayed by the Americans, the Kurdish self-rule administration in northeastern Syria moved quickly to reconcile with the Syrian government, announcing on Monday that it would allow regime forces to enter its territory to confront the Turkish invasion. SDF fighters would now fight with the regime and hopefully benefit from Russian air cover. There were reports that regime forces had managed to deploy near Ain Aissa, a strategic town that Turkey was trying to reach. Interestingly, that town is located about 45 kilometers south of the border, well beyond the 32 kilometer target set by Erdogan.
Turkey had warned Damascus against deploying its troops in Kurdish-run areas and the question now is how Ankara will justify clashing with Russian and Iranian backed government forces and how Moscow and Tehran will react to such a possibility.
Aside from world condemnation of the Turkish operation, the move is risky for Erdogan for a number of reasons. The Turkish president had exaggerated the Kurdish threat to his country, and his determination to invade northern Syria has a lot to do with his personal and grandeur ambitions and less with Turkey’s national security. Even if his troops manage to control vast swathes of Syrian territory, securing it will prove to be a major and costly challenge.
The Russians: President Vladimir Putin’s initial response to the Turkish invasion was tactical. Moscow must have been relieved to see US forces withdrawing from northern Syria, but giving Turkey a free pass into that territory is another matter. The loose alliance between Ankara and Moscow will be tested in the coming days. As Syrian government forces try to take over Kurdish-run territory, Moscow will have to decide whether to back Damascus or allow the Turkish army to fill the void left by the Americans.
The regime: Initially the Damascus government refused to talk to the self-rule Kurdish administration, accusing it of being a US puppet. But allowing Turkey to occupy northern Syria and perhaps stay there permanently is something else. Its decision to deploy forces in Kurdish-run areas could not have taken place without Moscow’s consent. In the eyes of the world, the Syrian government is defending its sovereignty and territory against a foreign invasion. Erdogan’s justification for fighting regime forces will be compromised as Iran and Russia, not to mention the rest of the world, move to condemn the Turkish operation.
The Arab world: Not since the eruption of the Syrian crisis in 2011 have Arab countries, Qatar and Libya excluded, displayed rare unity over Syria. An Arab League statement on Saturday condemned the “Turkish aggression” and defended Syria’s territorial integrity. But words are not enough to dissuade Erdogan from carrying out a scheme that most likely will include ethnic cleansing by displacing local inhabitants with Syrian refugees along the borders. He has done exactly that in Afrin and Jarablus when his troops took over few years ago.
Arab countries must do more to confront Erdogan’s plans in northern Syria, especially as Syrian government forces move to extend their grip over Kurdish-run areas. The time has come to engage Damascus diplomatically and support the political process to end the Syrian civil war.
Daesh: As expected, hundreds of Daesh fighters have escaped from Kurdish detention centres in the wake of the Turkish operation and the quick US withdrawal, and most will try to regroup and revive the terrorist organisation’s gruesome agenda. That is bad news for the region and the rest of the world. Turkey’s role in enabling foreign jihadists to enter Syria in the past is questionable at best.
The US and the region: Trump’s justification for US pullout from Syria as fulfilling his pledge to withdraw from “endless and ridiculous wars” is a major geopolitical event that comes at a time when American influence in the region is waning. Regional allies should be worried and the question is what ramifications Trump’s decision will have on the region as a whole. The US pullout is good news for Iran and Russia, two countries that seek to enhance their presence and influence in the region.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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