It was once suggested that the US has never actually had a foreign policy per se, but rather it has simply destabilised any region thus occupying the perceived antagonists of the US, at any given moment in time. If that is true, it is perhaps the explanation of what is happening in Turkey and Syria today.
By signalling that they were no longer going to actively support the (mainly Kurdish) Syrian Defence Force, The US has instigated a period of destabilisation that will keep all the main players in the region, fully occupied, until the US says stop. For the Turks, the US decision allows Ankara to create a chunky buffer zone between itself and the War Next Door, and it feels it is simply too good an opportunity to miss. The Turkish strategy therfore has multiple aims:
- To prevent the growth of an identifiable Kurdish controlled region, which might gain some sort of independent overseas, even UN, recognition
- To establish a safe zone for Syrian refugees, but by its location slows them down and prevents them from entering Turkey and joining the 3½m refugees it already harbours at great expense.
- To create and control a zone of influence along the border, which would allow it to make a mark on Syrian and thus Arab geopolitical policies, perhaps providing some balance to the baleful, even unfriendly, influences wielded by Iran and Russia.
Inevitably this is all going to lead to
a potential confrontation with Syria, and very stern response from Syria’s principal ally, Russia. Syria’s secondary – but far closer – Iranian pals will also want to join in. In America, It will continue to fragmented US politics, and will certainly ensure retaliation from a well-liberal meaning Europe. However, and perhaps not unreasonably, it will also increase the venom of the ongoing Kurdish insurgency.
Into this Smorgasbord, the SDF has now added a signal that it will seek to align itself with Damascus and while that might diminish SDF goals of autonomy, they have little choice without US support. That will now mean that Syria’s North-Eastern border will become the new focus of attention as Syria tries to take control.
By bringing in Damascus, the SDF will create a new front between Syria and Turkey — and, again by extension, with Russia and Iran, which Syria can happily rely on to help it take control of that region. You do not have to be von Clausewitz to realise that the size of the proposed and larger buffer zone must stretch Turkish forced and their various proxies both in reach and maintenance. That is when you get mistakes, distrust, disappointment and volatility – and that is just between the allies.
Inevitably, therefore, the SDF will attempt to move the existing Kurdish insurgency to the new NE theatre of operations, where it can more easily link up with the PKK by the Iraqi border. We haven’t even touched on the IS elements some of who would now seem to have been given metaphorical Oyster cards and heaven knows who they decide will be tomorrow;’s target.
Bear in mind that the average Turk thinks poorly, I will put it no stronger, of his Arab neighbours – a situation little changed since The Arab Rebellion and TEL. That means that in relatively poor Turkey, Erdogan cannot be seen to be looking after refugees better than his own citizens. So getting the existing refugees to accept a future life hundred of miles from their original homes, and in an area, that has bever been especially hospitable in terms of housing, jobs, infrastructure etc.
So, on the one hand, Ankara wants to halt, (plus ca change), Kurdish aspirations by removing the US support card, but then risks alienating the US, Europe, Russia, Iran and not far behind it, Syria and Iraq. That alienation will be on both humanitarian and military grounds and Turkeys downside is a range of expansive sanctions, a massive economic cost on an already overburdened exchequer and the loss of core allies at a time when it might easily need friends.