THE BLOG
08/30/2016 11:25 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2017

Turkey Enters the Syrian Quagmire

After years of ambiguity, President Erdogan has launched Turkey into the Syrian quagmire, deploying tanks and Special Forces to support 2000 units of the Free Syrian Army. According to President Erdogan, the operation, called Euphrates Shield, targets Da'esh (ISIL, ISIS) and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which Turkey considers the Syrian branch of the PKK and designates a terrorist organization. After Turkish tanks fired into the strategic border town of Jarablus, Turkish-backed rebel forces entered into the town, dislodging Da'esh within a few hours.
BBC video appeared to show an abandoned town, with no signs of combat, which is surprising, considering that Da'esh had held the town for so long and has never yet yielded territory without a fierce fight. In Manbij, the last significant Da'esh stronghold to be taken, fighting lasted 76 days, despite heavy US bombardment. Moreover, this constitutes the first "victory" for the Free Syrian Army over Da'esh.
Turkey's move complicates the situation, in part because it technically violates the national sovereignty of an independent state. Putting that aside, Turkey may have at least three basic strategic objectives:
a. By occupying Jarablus, Turkey can prevent the three Kurdish entities in North Syria from uniting, while also trying to limit their links to PKK guerrillas inside Turkey. But Saleh Moslem, PYD Co-chair and one of the leaders of Rojava, tweeted defiantly: "Turkey is in [the] Syrian quagmire. [It] will lose [like] Daesh".
b. Attempting to force the US to choose between Turkey and the Kurdish PYD and its People's Protection Unit (YPJ), one of the most effective anti-Da'esh forces. American VP Joe Biden reiterated the US supports both Turkey and the Kurds in the fight against Da'esh; yet it seems an arduous task.
c. By occupying Jarablus, Turkey seeks to strengthen its hand in any future negotiations in Geneva chaired by Stefan de Mistura, or vis-a-vis Russia and Iran, who support the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.
The Turkish intervention is not the only indication that the ground is shifting. The recent Syrian Air Force bombing of Kurdish bases in Hasakah Province in northern Syria has ceased after Russian mediation, a possible sign of the new understanding among Turkey, Iran and Russia. During the recent failed coup in Turkey, Erdogan had received immediate support and solidarity from both Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile, there seems to be forming a sort of unofficial understanding among Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Syrian government and obviously the US to finally reach an effective ceasefire and eventually to resolve the Syrian war. A preliminary agreement could admit a role for President Assad until elections could be held, and prevent the Rojava project, although Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leader of the Turkish left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), has stated that any agreement for ending the Syria crisis should not cause damage to Kurds.
Even within the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the exception of Erdogan-aligned Qatar, mainstream perception seems prepared to envision a resolution. But any agreement in Syria among Mullah, Tsar, Sultan and Assassin (as it is called by papers in Saudi Arabia and its allied sheikdoms) would exclude Saudi Arabia from negotiations, which of course irritates the Saudis. Meanwhile, the NY Times notes that with respect to terrorism, Saudi Arabia is both arsonist and firefighter: They officially oppose it even while deploying their usual supply of cash and weapons to the most extreme jihadi-takfiri groups, seeking to establish a foothold in Syria. After talks with John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exhorted his Saudi counterpart Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir to open talks with the Syrian establishment. Al-Jubeir refused, at which point the usually diplomatic Lavrov was heard muttering "expletive imbeciles." As for Kerry, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif considers him well aware of the real source of terrorism in the region.
Even if a working proposal were to be drawn up for a potential agreement among regional and global powers, the move by Turkey could not simplify the miasma that is the Syrian conflict. Erdogan's intention to maintain within Syria a Muslim-Brotherhood orientation along the lines of the Turkish and Qatari regimes would surely come into direct conflict with the Syrian Army, which after five years of multi-factional civil war still represents most parts of Syrian society and would resist cracks in its strong secular foundation. In Syria not only minority Alawites, but also Christians, Druze, Ismailis, Shiites... (the coalition of minorities) share governance alongside the Sunni majority, at the top echelons of business, politics, and the military. Minority rights alongside the of rights of Sunnis are more secure in Syria than in most Arab countries and especially more than in Saudi Arabia.
Although all internal and most external actors leverage sectarianism as a tool, the civil war in Syria is not primarily sectarian in nature, but rather political and geopolitical. As such, an agreement among the regional and global players could finally succeed in reaching an effective ceasefire and eventual end to the tragedy. The multi-sided civil war and the use of sectarianism need not inevitably prolong the war, as some maintain. The major players may yet be able to force their proxies to the negotiating table in Geneva, as they come to realize ever more clearly that the real threat to stability and security everywhere comes from the various non-state actors who still control large swaths of territory.