While Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, it has also had on-and-off relationships with nations that NATO has opposed. Considering Turkey’s geographical location one can certainly understand its need to maintain peace in the region, and yet, members of NATO often question the sincerity of its participation in the alliance. With this understood perhaps we ought to drill down into Turkey’s recent decision to move into Syria.
In October of 2019, Turkey announced it was going into Syria. Its goal was simple; to push the Kurdish forces (PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê or Kuristan Working Party) out of the region just South of the Turkish border in Syria. Prior to this time, Turkey had an understanding with the U.S. not to conduct offensive military activities in Syria while the U.S. was fighting ISIS. Everything appeared to be going well. Turkey defended its territory from incursion and even shot down a Russian fighter-attack jet aircraft in 2015 that flew over a piece of its Southern territory with air-to-air missiles according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
What changed? Why did Turkey decide to go on the offensive? Well, it appears Putin convinced Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to go after the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria. This is of benefit to Putin since ISIS is now defeated and the Kurdish forces working with the United States are one of the last threats to Putin’s dual-control of Syria with Bashar Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s President. Russia has long had a warm water naval port in Syria, and now has two more military airbases in Syria.
Essentially, Erdogan has chosen a new relationship with Russia over its alliance with NATO and relationship with the United States. Russia is also delivering an advanced S-400 missile defense system to Turkey. The U.S. Congress has voted to stop the importing of F-35 fighter-attack aircraft into Turkey. Russia has responded by offering to sell the Turkish military Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets. Is NATO going to lose Turkey completely? Is Turkey going to voluntarily leave NATO?
In a news conference, Erdogan told Putin that the war in Syria was creating a huge humanitarian and migrant flow crisis into Turkey. Further, Erdogan is concerned that the Kurdish rebel fighters in Syria are too close to its borders and those Kurdish rebels will join other Kurdish factions in Turkey causing terrorist acts. The Kurds want to establish an area in Syria that they can have, as they have no country, rather have concentrated in Turkey and Northern Iraq.
If you look on a map, you can see why they’d like a piece of Northern Syria, as they are land-locked in Northern Iraq, and disfavored in Turkey, where there is an on-going conflict between the Turkish government and the 10-15 million (estimated 18% of Turkey’s population) Kurds who live there. Turkey sees the Kurds or a small percentage of them as their domestic terrorists, reported by researchers at FDD. This is why Turkey doesn’t want any more trained and battle-hardened Kurds in their country as the war in Syria draws down.
As the Syrian forces pushed back the Kurdish rebels to the Turkish border and surrounded them as reported by experts at the FDD. The Syrian and Russian Military realized that since the Kurds were being supported by the U.S. Military, they couldn’t risk a larger conflict. Additionally, even as the U.S. drew down its involvement, if Syria and Russia wiped out the remaining Kurdish forces there could be hell to pay on the international stage. So, Putin convinced Turkey’s Erdogan to move his military in to snuff them out. Thus, Turkey ends up looking like the bad guy, and Putin gets what he wants, all for a few defensive missiles and promise to sell Turkey some military jets.
Erdogan has been played by Putin, and while he may rid himself of some Kurds, in the end, Russia and Syria aren’t going to give him any slack until he’s out of NATO, and if Turkey leaves NATO, it in essence, becomes a client-nation for Russia, a situation that never seems to end well, notes leading non-partisan researchers.