By Audrey Williams
With horrors unfolding through Aleppo at an unprecedented pace following the collapse of a brief and ineffectual ceasefire, the Syrian civil war continues to bleed over into Turkey, reaping chaos on the streets and in Ankara’s security dilemmas.
On December 10, twin bombings struck the heart of Istanbul. At the time of writing, 44 people had died in the attack, including 30 police officers who were explicitly targeted, with hundreds injured. The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), a PKK splinter group, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the last 18 months, Turkey has suffered an overwhelming 33 bombings, in which 446 people, including 363 civilians, have perished.
Many fear that this is the new norm in Turkey, in large part due to spillover violence from the catastrophic Syrian conflict. The power vacuum in Syria has made ISIS into the monster it is today; the terrorist group is believed to have conducted at least 8 attacks in Turkey. Additionally, gains by Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq have emboldened Kurdish militant organizations like TAK and the PKK in the fight for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
With its ongoing military intervention into northern Syria, Turkey now risks not just a continuation or even escalation of the past year’s terrorist violence within its own borders but also a direct military confrontation with the Assad government and its major international backers, Russia and Iran.
The battle of Aleppo, which is just 60 km from the Turkish border, could instigate that showdown as new conditions imposed by Iran have reportedly broken down the ineffective and brief ceasefire negotiated between Moscow and Ankara.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu has accused the Syrian government and its allies of intentionally breaking down the tenuous deal, with tens of thousands of civilians now subject to an international bombing campaign in Aleppo. “We see now that the regime and other groups are trying to obstruct this [deal],” Çavuşoğlu was quoted saying by Anadolu Agency. “This includes Russia, Iran, forces supported by Iran and the regime.”
Turkey joins the fray
Turkey has made no secret of its desire to see Bashar Al Assad removed from power. But when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria this past August, the target was not the Assad government. Instead, President Erdoğan announced his government’s intent to establish a 5,000 square-kilometer safe zone across its border with Syria, free of the influence of both ISIS and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish group that Turkey views as a terrorist organization due to its ties to the PKK.
Turkey’s military actions have largely reflected those goals. In addition to reclaiming cities from ISIS and shelling their positions, Turkey has also targeted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is part.
Key to this plan is the city of Al Bab, the fate of which will be crucial in deciding the outcome of the war after the fall of Aleppo. Just 30 kilometers from the Turkish border, within Turkey’s proposed ‘safe-zone’, but only 40 km northwest of Aleppo, it is also potentially a key staging post for Turkey to continue to supply rebel forces. This poses a major risk to the regime, as the conflict has shown time and time again that while it is one thing to clear the battleground of opposing forces, it is quite another to hold these gains in the long run.
To add to this, Al Bab is controlled by ISIS and is of strategic importance to anyone wishing to launch an attack on the group’s de facto capital at Raqqa. Whoever controls the city will therefore be able to play a defining role in the battle to regain territory from the so called “Islamic State’. For these reasons, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces are now closing in on the city, and according to Ankara, are racing against government and Kurdish forces.
Ankara’s advance deeper into northern Syria coupled with Assad’s advances in Aleppo are altering the playing field in Syria. With the rebels of Aleppo almost entirely defeated, the advance of the Turkish-backed FSA looks likely to become the new frontline in northern Syria, raising the possibility of direct clashes with the Assad government, which will bring Turkey into conflict not just with Damascus but also Moscow and Tehran.
Troubled skies over Syria
This danger was born out on November 24, when an airstrike killed four Turkish soldiers and wounded several others. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) swiftly blamed the Assad government in Damascus. Ankara immediately turned to Moscow, long-time Assad supporter, for answers.
Putin assured Erdoğan that the airstrike was not Russian and that the attack had, in fact, been from an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle not currently in the arsenal of Assad’s military. A U.S. official recently told Hürriyet Daily News that it was possible that Iran-backed Shia militias had killed the Turkish soldiers.
Given the airstrike came a year to the day after the Turkish military shot down a Russian fighter jet Ankara claimed had violated its airspace near its border with Syria, there is speculation that it was intended to send a message to Ankara about the dangers of trying to take Al Bab without at least tacit agreement from Moscow.
Despite this, on November 29, Erdoğan abruptly changed the narrative of the Euphrates Shield operation. He announced that Turkey had entered Syria to “end the rule of the cruel Assad, who has been spreading state terror.” But after a phone call the following day with Putin, the Turkish President clarified that the target of Euphrates Shield is and has only ever been terror organizations, rather than remove Moscow’s long standing ally in Damascus — a not insignificant deescalation.
Regardless of such tense exchanges, Turkey-Russia relations remain remarkably pragmatic, a sign perhaps of wider shifts in global political power. Russia has come out in staunch support of the Turkish government since the July 15 coup attempt, while Turkey’s traditional allies in the West have been hesitant, if not out-right critical of the post-putsch crackdown.
Putin’s special adviser Aleksandr Dugin has been especially vocal. During a visit to the Turkish parliament in November, when asked a question on whether a strategic alliance between Ankara and Moscow would affect Turkey’s NATO membership, Dugin said, “That is your decision. You will decide who stands by you, who is your friend, who is your foe.” Dugin has also not been shy in implicating “American agents” in the coup attempt.
The warmth between Russia and Turkey contrasts starkly with the grim mood between Ankara and Washington. The U.S. is concerned about rising anti-Americanism and an erosion of the rule of law and respect for human rights in Turkey. Turkey is frustrated that the U.S. has still not extradited or even arrested Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric who Ankara blames for the coup attempt.
Turkey has also bridled over Washington’s support of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG, in northern Syria. Due to their ties to the PKK, the Turkish government views them both as terrorist organizations that threaten its security as much as ISIS, if not more.
Given that Turkey is a NATO ally with a key role to play in the fight against ISIS, it is natural that recent goodwill between Russia and Turkey has Washington worried. But just as it was in November 2015, Syria remains the ultimate proving ground for renewed ties between Ankara and Moscow, and tensions are once again flaring as eastern Aleppo is reduced to ashes.
Ankara and Moscow treading carefully for now
Since the end of November, Ankara has been playing host to representatives of the Russian government and Syrian rebel groups as they discuss opportunities for a ceasefire in Aleppo.
The city had been embroiled in a military stalemate since rebels rose up against the Assad government in 2012. Neither the rebels in eastern Aleppo nor the Assad government in western Aleppo had been able to make significant gains against the other until six months ago – with civilians paying in blood for this war of attrition.
Since the summer, Assad’s forces – aided by Russian aircraft and a variety of militias – began making incremental but steady inroads through the countryside approaching Aleppo.
Finally, in the middle of November, the Assad government launched a full-scale offensive to retake the rebel-held districts in the eastern half of the city. On December 13, Russia’s ambassador to the UN announced that the Assad government had regained control over the entirety of rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
Tens of thousands have fled while others remain trapped in some of the worst fighting seen during this bloody conflict. The UN have reported that pro-government forces have been massacring people in the streets, including women and children. However, with 98 percent of the city now retaken, earlier reports of massacres, kidnappings and inhumane treatment under rebel forces in eastern Aleppo are emerging once again.
As the Assad government made its final gains against the rebels on December 13, a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey was announced. According to the deal, the rebels, their families, and any civilians wishing to follow them would have had a day to leave the city.
Yet regime and Russian forces quickly resumed the catastrophic bombing campaign. As civilian deaths continue to mount, and attempts at negotiating a ceasefire or evacuation of the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the city are destroyed, the limits of Turkey’s realpolitik approach to Russia over Syria are being exposed.
And there are signs that such pragmatism is beginning to breakdown elsewhere. A recent report from the International Crisis Group based on interviews with high-level government officials revealed that Turkey had also previously engaged in secret negotiations with Iran as recently as this year regarding a solution to the Syria conflict.
The talks have since collapsed, threatening to escalate tensions between the two countries, particularly in Iraq, where Turkey has repeatedly warned Baghdad against allowing Iranian backed Shia militias to liberate Sunni-majority areas as part of the fight against ISIS. The battle to drive ISIS from Mosul, which has yet to reach its final, potentially catastrophic, conclusion, looks likely to test relations further, with the government in Baghdad already raising the risk of “regional-war” if Turkish troops are not removed from northern Iraq.
Despite the November 24 attack against the Turkish soldiers, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have so far avoided any major military escalation among their proxies in Syria. However, with the Assad government now back in control of most of Aleppo, and the Turkish army and its allies at the gates of Al Bab, it remains to be seen whether Ankara will be able to emerge from the Syrian conflict without major confrontation with Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran.
What the past year’s terrorist attacks make certain is that Turkey’s security is now inextricably tied to Syria’s. With no hope for peace in the latter, there is little hope of respite for the former.