February 24, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Behind Turkey’s Tomb Raid
The Turkish incursion into Syria on February 22 to relocate the remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, to a safer location far closer to the Turkish border was a neat expression of Turkish attitudes towards the Syrian civil war. The Turks did not consult the Assad regime before the operation, though it is likely that they warned the local commanders of the so-called Islamic State to stay well clear. They moved in force, with some 600 soldiers and 40 tanks, as well as air support on standby. This was not necessarily for fear of attack, but to show a) that they could, and b) that they would not brook any interference. It was a show of force and capability directed at many different audiences.
Turkey still insists that the coalition’s focus on the Islamic State leaves too many other parts of the problem unaddressed. It argues that the coalition cannot deal successfully with the presence of the Islamic State in Iraq unless it also tackles its presence in Syria. But while this argument is easily accepted, the logical follow-on that it is not possible to eradicate the Islamic State in Syria for so long as the civil war there continues—and that means for so long as Assad remains in power—is a step too far. Not because the rest of the coalition disagrees or wants Assad to remain, but because they do not see how to remove him.
Turkey has suggested a buffer zone in northern Syria as a first step towards a more robust intervention in the war. Turkey’s incursion over the weekend demonstrates that it believes itself militarily capable of creating one, and of sustaining it, given adequate air support from the rest of the coalition. Indeed, Turkish tanks are stationed at the new site of the Suleyman Shah tomb in Syria—albeit that it is just over the border. Turkey had even considered trying to force its allies into action by invoking Article V of the NATO Treaty, in that an attack on the Suleyman Shah tomb, which is regarded as a part of Turkey, would be regarded as an attack on the Alliance as a whole; though no doubt the Turks quickly concluded that the rest of NATO might see such an attack as insufficiently serious.
But if the Turkish incursion was a good demonstration of the weakness of the Assad government and the limits of the power of the Islamic State when faced with a real army, it had a wider impact as well. To Turks, it showed that President Erdogan is serious about protecting both the interests and the symbols of the Turkish state, and that he puts great value on the country's historical legacy. This is likely to strengthen support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in the more conservative areas of the country in the run-up to the national elections in June. It may also change attitudes towards the government’s Syria policy, and its foreign policy more generally, which polls suggest most voters do not support. The incursion, conducted through the area around Kobani, also serves to remind the Kurds that whatever part they may have played in the defeat of the Islamic State assault on Kobani, they should think carefully before trying to exploit it in the interests of further independence.
As to the regional powers beyond Syria, the incursion will remind them that Turkey is not a country with a few well-trained pilots who can add local color to an essentially Western air campaign; it has real military capability and is prepared to use it. It also demonstrates that whatever problems Erdogan may have had with the Turkish Army in his early days as prime minister, his authority over it is currently unchallenged. There is a more subtle subtext to this as well. While Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates may see Turkey as both a ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ and non-Arab state, the incursion has shown that the Turkish model in no way inhibits the executive use of hard power, and that the Arab neighborhood is where Turkey can most easily wield it.
In short, the Turkish action may bring others to conclude that the drift apparent in coalition policy towards Syria is not sustainable in the longer term. If the broader community cannot agree on action soon, then the opportunity to decide what action to take may be lost. Consideration of allowing Assad to remain in power is a non-starter with the Turks. Also, it is highly unlikely that the Turks will have a different opinion from all others involved about the likelihood of ‘moderate’ rebels making a difference on the ground. Their agreement to work with the U.S. on training and arming moderates will have more to do with keeping control over their use than with any firm belief in their effectiveness. The Turks are on the front line in the Syrian war. They play host to 1.5 million Syrian refugees; their economy is affected by the disruption of regional markets; they are the main transit country for foreigners joining extremist groups; and they have been drawn into a political morass where competing interests and ideologies have significantly reduced the likelihood of concerted action. Especially under Erdogan, it is hard to think that Turkey will do nothing further to bring the situation to an end.
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