Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


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Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters in east Afrin, Syria.
Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the main players are fighting to carve the country into regions of control and influence.

A pivotal turn came in January, when Turkish forces launched the “Olive Branch” military operation targeting Afrin, a 300,000-strong Kurdish city in northeast Syria.

Three key developments in 2017 led to the Turkish operation in Syria.

The first was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in the conflict. In a major victory over the resistance, Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran captured the Syrian economic powerhouse of Aleppo – with the tacit agreement of Turkey.

Subsequently, Assad forces, and Russia, continued to expand their control over western Syria. In December 2017, they launched an intense attack on Idlib – a city neighbouring Afrin and the last stronghold of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by the Nusra Front and supported by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government. Even though HTS launched a counteroffensive, the Assad forces continued to make advances in Idlib.

Second was the bold move for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which accelerated after the Kurdish and central Iraqi forces recaptured the largest northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. In September 2017, northern Iraq’s Kurdish government staged a referendum for independence, with a whopping 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes”. Although the referendum backfired spectacularly, it sent a clear signal to Turkey and others on Kurdish ambitions for independence.




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Third was the rise in the prominence of Syrian Kurds. In October 2017, the US launched a successful military effort to depose IS from its stronghold, the capital Raqqa, ending IS as a political force. The main proxy army on the ground was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Despite Turkey’s protests, the US supplied SDF with heavy arms, justifying the move as a necessity in deposing the common enemy, IS. Even after the fall of IS, the return of heavy weapons became the focus of a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey.

Displaced Syrian children look out from their tents at a refugee camp in Idlib province, Syria.
Reuters/Osman Orsal

The last straw for Turkey was the announcement of a 30,000-strong border security force to protect the Syrian Kurdish enclave. Even though the US soon backtracked, it caused outrage in Turkey. This is because the border in question was the Turkey-Syria border, and implied the security force was aimed at Turkey.

Erdogan called the proposed force a “terror army” and wowed to “nip this terror army in the bud”. Within days, the Turkish military operation had begun.

This move came at the same time as a break-up of the uneasy alliance between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, as well as the US, over the future of Syria. Erdogan signalled this in late December, when he accused Assad of “state terrorism”.

What America wants

For the US, Turkey’s presence in Syria complicates things, and harms its plans resting on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. Just as there was no need for Turkey during the offensive against IS, there is no need for Turkey in the future of Syria.

The US sees the UN-led Geneva talks as the solution to the Syrian crisis and insists that Assad is not part of the solution. This goal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Realising this after Assad’s Aleppo victory, the US has shifted its objectives to eliminating IS and supporting an increased Kurdish prominence in Syria.




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According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US will continue its presence in Syria, but as a “stabilising force”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iran and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.

This is a major policy shift by the US administration and has infuriated Erdogan. It means US protection for the Kurdish enclave is permanent, and the US will try to neutralise Russian influence by controlling regions lying east of the Euphrates River. It will also use Kurdish forces and populations as a bargaining chip in any discussion of Syria’s future.

What Russia wants

Turkey’s Afrin operation would not have been possible without Russian approval, as Russia controls the air space in northwestern Syria.

Russia has allowed the operation to go ahead so that it can maintain the fragile alliance that President Vladimir Putin formed with Iran and Turkey, and continue the recent talks Russia led with Syrian factions in Sochi. Russia wants to preserve the hard-won influence it garnered over the past two years and avoid tarnishing its world power status. More importantly, Putin does not want anything to overshadow his bid to win the looming presidential elections on March 18.

Putin has seen Erdogan as an important ally in his strategy to divide the NATO alliance from within, and so would prefer he stayed in power. This is why Putin gave Erdogan a political hand in allowing the Turkish operation to go ahead. In a sense, Putin can tolerate the Afrin operation for as long as it is contained to a small region.

What Turkey wants

Erdogan’s main aim with the operation is to thwart any US and Russian plans to carve up Syria after the IS defeat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erogan’s main aim is to thwart any US or Russian plans to carve up Syria post-IS.
Reuters/Umit Bektas

Turkey insists on being involved in every key negotiation on the future of Syria, to prevent the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which it sees as an existential threat. Having its own 8-10 million Kurdish population in the southeast of the country, Turkey feels it is next on the list of destabilised countries and fears it is only a matter of time before its Kurdish region is excised for a greater Kurdish state.

Turkey wants to establish itself as the third major player after Russia and the US by supporting the Free Syrian Army, the least-powerful Syrian faction composed of Sunni Arab forces. In doing so, it wants to establish a Turkish-controlled corridor north of the Euphrates so that it can move 2.8 million increasingly unpopular Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The speed of the military operation suggests pre-planning rather than a reaction.

Ultimately, Erdogan is playing for internal politics. He needs the support of the nationalist elements in Turkey to win the critical 2019 presidential election, which will give him new powers passed in the 2016 referendum.

Losing the election would mean his political opponent has those powers, and would likely resurrect serious corruption charges against him. While those charges may be forgotten in Turkey for now, they are kept alive in US courts.

This explains Erdogan’s increasing anti-US rhetoric. He is counting on the Syrian operation to increase his bargaining chips in a potential showdown with the US administration.

The ConversationTurkey has made an extremely risky move, which could escalate the conflict in Syria. Over the past three decades, it has launched countless operations across the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Not only has Turkey failed to prevent developments favouring a pathway towards Kurdish independence, it has made matters worse for itself. This time may be no different.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How a more divided Turkey could change the way we think about Gallipoli


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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a central figure in linking the Gallipoli campaign with Islamic conceptualisations of the Turkish nation.
EPA

Brad West, University of South Australia and Ayhan Aktar, Istanbul Bilgi University

The win for the “yes” side in Turkey’s recent referendum on the powers of the president has fundamental implications for parliamentary democracy in the country, and for relations between Turkey and the west. The Conversation

For Australia, the referendum has an additional significance: by entrenching the power of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it will influence the future of Australian commemoration activities at Gallipoli.

The numbers of Australians, along with other westerners, visiting Turkey has recently declined dramatically. This is a consequence of ongoing political instability in the country following last year’s attempted coup d’état and a series of terror attacks. The Australian government also recently warned of potential attacks targeting the Gallipoli battlefields on Anzac Day.

A significant decline in this pilgrimage activity will likely have a wider impact on the way Australia understands Gallipoli. This is particularly the case given the continued resonance of an Anzac narrative characterised by a historical empathy for Turkey’s perspective on the war.

Links with political Islam

The Gallipoli campaign has, in recent years, become part of the culture wars in Turkey associated with the rise of political Islam. This has seen Gallipoli increasingly referred to in relation to an Islamic jihad, and as an invasion of crusaders into the house of Islam.

Approximately 1 million Turks visit the battlefields each year. And an estimated 10% of the Turkish population have at some stage engaged in some kind of martyr tourism at Gallipoli.

Erdoğan has been a central figure in linking the Gallipoli campaign with Islamic conceptualisations of the Turkish nation. He has said:

[The] crusades were not [finished] nine centuries ago in the past! Do not forget, [the] Gallipoli [campaign] was a crusade.

Following the failed coup, Erdoğan also evoked the memory of Gallipoli. Recreated scenes of the Ottoman victory in the land battles against Anzac soldiers played on large screens in Taksim Square as he addressed cheering pro-government crowds.

The vision was taken from a controversial TV commercial originally produced for the centennial commemorations of the Gallipoli battle. Its use of various Islamic symbols was widely interpreted as breaking with traditional secular ways of remembering the campaign.

A Centennial Epic: Çanakkale.

How the shift is taking place

Significant shifts in Turkish memory of Gallipoli are not unprecedented. Since the 1930s there has been a few turning points in how the campaign is understood.

First, and most significant, was the victory of the Ottoman Imperial Army in being “Turkified”. Arab, Kurdish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish soldiers and officers were cleansed from the official narrative. This also involved de-emphasising Germany’s role as the Ottomans’ allies in the first world war.

The official nationalist narrative has glorified the military leadership of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) in the battles against British and Anzac forces. This has linked the collective memory of Gallipoli with the independence movement that led to the formation of the secularist Turkish nation-state in 1923.

The historiography of Gallipoli is now potentially undergoing another major change. The classical Turkish view of Gallipoli may be being replaced by an Islamic-oriented narrative.

Turkish pilgrims once were told the same historical tales by the guides that also took Australian and New Zealand visitors around the battlefields. But now, the vast majority of locals visit through bus tours that are arranged by Islamist municipal administrations for their residents, free of charge.

In contrast to local guides embedded in the tourism industry, those who lead the bus tours are more likely to express an Islamic narrative of Gallipoli.

This trend is apparent in an increasing popular march that re-enacts the mobilisation of the legendary 57th Regiment to defend the highlands from Anzac troops. This involves approximately 20,000 young boys and girls from scouts and other paramilitary organisations. And it is common for participants to wear t-shirts remembering their ancestors who fought at Gallipoli.

It’s hard to know precisely what the consequences of these new commemorative rituals will be for the collective memory of Gallipoli. From fieldwork research on the Anzac pilgrimage, the motivations and meanings taken away from the battlefields are often different from that which politicians and social commentators have often assumed.

Brad West, Associate Professor, School of Communication, International Studies and Languages, University of South Australia and Ayhan Aktar, Chair Professor, Istanbul Bilgi University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.