Levent Kemal* on Syria, Turkey and the regional geopolitics

This interview was published in De Re Militari English, Issue 2 – check it out here: De Re Militari ENG, Issue 2.

4D3doTE6_400x400De Re Militari (DRM): Turkey entered the Syrian civil war on 24th August 2016. A lot of people have forgotten why. What was the specific set of causes which led to the Turkish military intervention?

Levent Kemal (LK): The causes of Turkey’s intervention in Syria were shared many times with the public. These reasons can be summarized as security threats. As of 2016, the primary threat as ISIS. The operation against ISIS has overcome a border threat. However, the struggle to control the district of Al-Bab has deciphered another situation. With this move, Turkey prevented YPG / PKK’s westward progress. At the end of the Euphrates Shield operation, Turkey has expressed it clearly: We prevented a terror corridor from occurring along our borders.

DRM: How has Turkey’s goals in Syria evolved during the past three years? What has changed since the initial phase?

LK: This is a very comprehensive subject because of Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy seriously affect each other. Nevertheless, it is possible to summarize the subject as follows:

ISIS was the main threat for Turkey in 2016. The elimination of this threat also brought the YPG / PKK to the agenda. Following ISIS, the primary threat was the YPG / PKK. In the years 2016-2018, Turkey’s main concern on Syria was security. The operation for Afrin was also carried out for security reasons. However, with the Astana process, Turkey was confronted with a new problem: Refugees.

Opposition parties in Turkey, as in Europe, the fear of a new wave of refugees, and have used it as a propaganda tool. This process covers the local election period and its results. This period also included economic criticism. (Such as expenses for refugees and the course of the economy) Thus, the issue of refugees was effective in the direction of change in Turkey’s policy on Syria. Turkey is looking for diplomatic ways to solve the problem in Syria since last year. However, it has not overlooked the limited use of military force to solve the YPG / PKK and refugee problem as an alternative to these diplomatic means.

DRM: Turkey has devoted substantial financial and military resources to its participation in the Syrian conflict. Is there any actual, reliable data on the number of troops involved and the expenditure?

LK: Naturally, we do not have such information for the security and execution of a cross-border operation. There are various estimates, but a continuous rotation of convoys overrides all estimates.

DRM: During the past year, Turkey withdrew from several “front lines” in the Idlib Governorate, allowing the expansion of the Assad forces and the dissolution of several rebel factions. Why has Turkey chosen to back from positions, which were considered “red line” and proclaimed as diplomatic achievements vis a vis Iran and Russia?

LK: First, it is necessary to express: Turkey is not part of a military clash in Idlib. Therefore, despite Turkey’s support to the Syrian opposition, Ankara is not the policymaker regarding the opposition’s military operations. Turkey is providing communication between international diplomatic solution comities and the opposition parties.

On the other hand, Turkey is not part of the internal conflict between the Syrian opposition. Turkey is, due to the support of the Syrian opposition, often described as the part of internal conflict. However, the emergence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) showed that Turkey is not a party in this regard. If Ankara was an side, it would have had to protect Ahrar Al-Sham and help Bab Al Hawa hold it.

Work with Iran and Russia is not an option for Turkey, but a necessity. The group of Friends of Syria was shattered. Contention between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as US cooperation with PKK, pushed Turkey to this obligation.

DRM: Between May and August, over 570 000 refugees left their homes in Southern Idlib province due to the most recent gubernatorial campaign. Turkey’s observation points were also shelled, and a number of soldiers were reported injured. What is the new red line in Idlib?

LK: Turkey’s stance on this issue is quite clear. Turkey wants the conflict and forced displacement of civilians stopped. From the beginning of the Astana process, Turkey’s line is this.

DRM: The TSK is setting new observation points along the M4 and M5 highways. What are the current goals of the TSK in Idlib? Will these new observation points follow the fate of the previous ones?

LK: I don’t think it will be like before. Turkey is looking for a compromise to end the conflict. There is an idea/claim in the field: new observation points are being established due to Russia’s demand for the M4 and M5 motorways. We don’t know how accurate this thought/claim is. Turkey may be preparing to meet Russia’s demand. Time will tell the fate of the new observation points. Such a situation can be described as Turkey’s efforts for a political solution.

DRM: Some observers warn that nearly 2 000 000 more refugees will flow into Turkey if Idlib falls to Assad. How is Ankara going to handle such a scenario?

LK: President Erdogan in his statements on this issue said that Turkey does not have the possibility to host the new wave of refugees. He added that Europe should take responsibility. If the 2 million refugees come to Turkey, there is nothing much Ankara can do within the abilities of the state. The first possible solution is for Turkey to give refugees a controlled transit to Europe.

DRM: Turkey is currently bidding for the higher stakes in Libya, Syria and Northern Iraq. It also aims at expanding its military presence in Somalia and Qatar. Is Ankara capable of acting decisively on so many fronts? Is there a prospect of overextension?

LK: The Turkish presence in Libya supports the UN-recognized government. Ankara shares responsibilities with the UN in Libya. In Qatar and Somalia, both anti-terrorism and training activities are carried out. In this regard, unlike other countries in the field, Turkey is principally using military elements. Turkey is using a legitimate ground in this regard. From this point of view, I think it will continue to exist in these areas as much as necessary.

DRM: Where is the balance between the US and Russia in Erdogan’s foreign policy?

LK: The politics of balance did not begin with Erdogan. But at a time of clashes and warm contacts, the politics of balance drew attention with Erdogan. In the period after the Second World War and along the Cold war Turkey, though a NATO member, pursued the balance. However, the parameters of balance policy have changed in the last two years. Turkey began to show the changing trends due to the preferences of allies and the nature of internal politics. Despite all this, YPG / PKK’s case, the key point of Turkey’s policy regarding the US and Russia is a balance.

*Levent Kemal is a Turkish journalist and analyst with a primary focus on the Middle East and North Africa. He can be found on Twitter at @leventkemaI.

** The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect De Re Militari’s editorial stance.

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