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[Opinion] A battle of pride: Erdoğan and al-Assad in the ring for the final round

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been involved in backing jihadists in the Syrian civil war since 2011, while the Turkish army has carried out three cross-border operations in the war-torn country over the last few years. Turkey’s primary objective lies in preventing a northern Iraq version of an autonomous Kurdish region along its 911-kilometer border with Syria. It remains a mystery why Erdoğan is targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces instead of collaborating with the Syrian regime against the Kurdish militia groups in Syrian territories. Anger and rising tensions between Erdoğan and Assad have not been resolved, and it appears that a full-fledged war between Turkey and Syria may be on the horizon.

Former Turkish foreign minister Yaşar Yakış mentioned in a piece published on Monday in Arab News that Erdoğan is considering new military operations in Syria, presumably in an attempt to attract nationalist votes prior to the 2023 general election as recent surveys indicate that Erdoğan has the lowest support since his party came to power in 2002. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered an electoral alliance with the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in February 2018 ahead of the June 24, 2018 general election. Since then, the nationalist MHP voters together with the Islamist AKP supporters have been the major advocates of Erdoğan’s expansionism in the region.

On October 26, the Turkish government passed a motion to extend the military’s mandate to conduct cross-border operations into Syria and Iraq for two more years. The MHP with 48 seats, voted in favor of the motion, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party with 135 deputies and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with 56 seats voted against. The Turkish parliament first approved the motion in 2013 to support the international campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and it has since then been renewed several times.

“Operation Euphrates Shield’’ in 2016 was Turkey’s first ground intervention in Syria since the inception of the Syrian crisis in 2011.The Turkish-Free Syrian Army alliance captured the ISIL-controlled Syrian border town of Jarablus, and the Kurds withdrew east of the Euphrates. Erdoğan asserted at the time that the operation’s main aim was to stop the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), from capturing more towns along Turkey’s Syrian border. Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters targeted Kurdish positions west of Azaz and captured a district of Afrin in 2018. The Turkish army continued targeting Kurdish forces along its border attacking the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an armed group mostly made up of YPG fighters and recognized by Turkey as a terrorist group linked to the PKK. Erdoğan convinced then-US President Donald Trump regarding the third Syria operation. Following his phone conversation with Erdoğan, Trump shockingly announced the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria. In a statement from the White House, Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham on October 6, 2019 announced that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.” Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” in Syria on October 9, 2019 to remove the SDF from the northern Syrian region bordering Turkey. More than 90 civilians died and in excess of 300,000 Syrians were displaced as a direct result of Turkey’s operation.

Erdoğan’s main aim in carrying out the operation was to create a “safe zone” along the Syrian border and to resettle some of the millions of Syrian refugees across Turkey. Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin also came to an agreement during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on October 23, 2019 to work together to keep Kurdish forces away from Syria’s border with Turkey to ultimately create a “safe zone” in the area.

Turkey has since its last operation in 2019 repeatedly threatened Kurdish groups as well as the Syrian regime. However, it is important to note that Erdoğan is no longer in a position to convince Putin of operations in Syria, and his close ally Trump is no longer in office. Moreover, Turkey’s economy is in shambles, while Erdoğan’s health deteriorates. US President Joe Biden is known for being pro-Kurdish, and Ankara’s military support for Ukraine has created tension with Russia. Several political analysts anticipate that Turkey and Russia’s agreement in Syria’s Idlib region, the last jihadist stronghold, may soon collapse.

Al Jazeera reported that after meeting with Biden in Rome on October 31 during the G20 leaders’ summit, Erdoğan confirmed that  “when it is time to carry out an operation, an operation will be carried out. There is no stepping back from that.”

Since the Turkish parliament extended the mandate for Syrian operations, Turkish forces have been accelerating attacks on Syria. Turkish drones killed three Kurds in the very important northern Syrian city of Qamishli.

Several media outlets report that Turkey is going beyond the use of weapons and is torturing Kurds by weaponizing water in SDF-controlled areas. Al Jazeera reported last month that Kurdish officials and some Syrian civil society organizations have accused Turkish-backed forces of intermittently cutting off the water supply from the Alouk water station after taking control of it in late 2019 as part of a military operation in northern Syria. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate in Turkey, flowing southeast across Syria and Iraq, and are a major source of drinking water and vital to agriculture and electricity production.

Turkey has long been called a terrorist state by the Syrian government because of its interference in Idlib province. Erdoğan no longer possesses the power to convince Putin and Biden to oppose Assad and the Kurds but needs a war in Syria to please his nationalist voters. Erdoğan entered Syria a decade ago to capture the historical Islamic city of Damascus and declare his caliphate, but all that has come out of the situation are the heavy losses of Turkish soldiers on Syrian soil. The great irony is that Erdoğan’s aim of expansionism which began in Syria and his subsequent failure thereof will likely be the cause of the end of his reign.

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