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Turkey gives mixed signals on Syria

Pro-Erdogan media drums support for an invasion of Syria, but military experts say this is not feasible.
Turkish army tanks take part in a Republic Day ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, October 29, 2015. Turkey marks the 92nd anniversary of the Turkish Republic. REUTERS/Murad Sezer  - RTX1TS6F

As developments in Syria spin out of Turkey’s control, Ankara is sending mixed signals as to what it will do to regain the initiative to address its growing security concerns and deal with the fresh refugee crisis it is facing after the successful Syrian-Russian onslaught in northern Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added fuel to the fire over the weekend when he said Turkey should not repeat the mistake in Syria that it made in Iraq in 2003. He was referring to the refusal by the Turkish parliament to allow the United States to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq at the time.

Erdogan claimed that if the parliament had not refused permission, “the situation in Iraq would not be what it is today and Turkey would have a place at the table.”

Erdogan, who was talking to reporters on his way back from his Latin American tour, said that “matters in Syria could only be allowed to go so far,” and that Turkey had to protect its interests. “At the moment we are prepared for any eventuality with all our security forces,” he said.

His remarks follow Russian claims that Turkey is preparing to invade Syria.

"We have serious grounds to suspect Turkey is in intensive preparations for an armed invasion of the territory of a sovereign state — the Syrian Arab Republic," Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Feb. 4.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office dismissed the claim as “propaganda.” An unidentified official source told CNN that Turkey is not preparing such an invasion, and that Russia, which as a country that had already invaded Syria, was trying to divert attention from its attacks against civilians in that country.

Reuters also cited a senior Turkish official who denied the Russian claim. "Turkey is part of a coalition, is working with its allies and will continue to do so. As we have repeatedly said, Turkey will not act unilaterally," the official said.

Despite war drums by the pro-Erdogan media for a military operation in Syria, most analysts agree this is not feasible given the present complexity in Syria where too many interests are clashing.

Openly reflecting his annoyance over continuing US support for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People's Protections Units (YPG), Erdogan also issued what sounded like a challenge to Washington to choose between the PYD/YPG and Turkey.

The recent visit by US presidential envoy Brett McGurk to the Kurdish-held town of Kobani in Syria, where he met PYD officials, raised Ankara’s hackles.

“He went to Kobani and received a plaque from a supposed general just as the Geneva talks were about to begin. How are we to trust them? Am I your partner or the terrorists in Kobani?” Erdogan complained.

McGurk’s visit to Kobani came immediately after Turkey forced the United States to acquiesce to keeping the PYD out of the Geneva talks on Syria. This visit showed, however, that Washington will not desert the PYD.

This was also confirmed by State Department spokesman John Kirby at his daily briefing Feb. 8.

“We see Kurdish fighters on the ground that have been successful against Daesh as an important partner in this fight,” Kirby said when asked if the United States sees the PYD as an ally or partner. “Daesh,” the name Islamic countries use for the Islamic State, is also used by the United States.

Despite the obvious difficulties, Erdogan’s supporters in the media are trying to drum up support for an intervention in Syria by arguing that if Turkey does not do this now, it will pay a high price in the future by seeing its own territorial integrity compromised.

Ibrahim Karagul, the editor-in-chief of the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, believes “it is time for Turkey to confront some bitter facts,” arguing in his column that “Turkey should not and will not accept” a situation in Syria that is against its interests.

“Turkey must intervene directly in the Syrian affair. This includes a military operation. If Iran and Russia, whose arguments for intervening are so feeble, can enter this country, bomb regions along our borders, expel Syrians to Turkey and hit Turkey from Syria, then Turkey has much more realistic reasons [to intervene],” Karagul wrote Feb. 4.

Daily Hurriyet’s Tolga Tanis, however, believes that recent developments clearly show Turkey’s Syria policy has totally collapsed both militarily and politically.

Ankara has no instruments left in its hand that it can use,” Tanis, who is also Hurriyet’s Washington representative, wrote Feb. 7. He said Turkey had also lost leverage with Washington because of the “erosion in confidence” it had created with its policies.

Tanis said US officials “never considered talk about a land operation by Turkey in Syria to be realistic,” especially while Russia is waiting for an opportunity to avenge the downing of its fighter jet by the Turkish air force in November 2015.

Al-Monitor asked Maj. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu (R) for his political-military take on Erdogan’s remarks and the likelihood of a Turkish intervention in Syria. He said that Erdogan’s views with regard to Turkey’s barring the United States from invading Iraq over its territory in 2003 did not compare in any way with the situation in Syria.

“The operation in Iraq was to remove Saddam [Hussein]. The aim was clear. In Syria it is not clear who will intervene against whom and to what end,” Kuloglu said. “Neither is it clear who we would be collaborating with. There is no UN-sanctioned coalition. Nor is there a US-led coalition of the willing, as was the case in Iraq,” he added.

Kuloglu also regarded with skepticism statements by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that they are willing to send troops to Syria. “The same question arises here. Who would they intervene against? The regime, IS, the PYD? Who?” Kuloglu asked. He also discounted any possibility that Turkey could intervene in Syria unilaterally.

“All the talk that implies that Turkey is prepared to intervene in Syria is for a domestic audience,” Kuloglu concluded.

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