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Is it just a matter of time before Turkish military intervention in Syria?

The UN Security Council convened on Friday in a closed session for deliberations on Syria. Russia requested the emergency session to demand that Turkey stop its strikes on the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” in northern Syria. Russia also called for Turkey to abandon its preparations for a ground operation in its southern neighbour.

It should be noted that most of the Syrian Democratic Forces belong to the YPG (“People’s Protection Units”), which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The latter is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and NATO.

Friday’s Security Council session could be viewed as a precedent, as it discussed the plans of an expected military operation. It is noteworthy that the session was held at the request of Russia, which many countries see as an occupier of Syria. The government in Moscow must be certain that a Turkish ground operation in Syria is just a matter of time. Russia clearly wants to pre-empt such a move with a UN resolution that would restrict Turkey and further complicate its already complicated position.

According to some diplomats, France and four other countries (the US, Britain, New Zealand and Spain) rejected Russia’s draft resolution. With three of these countries possessing a veto (France, the US and Britain), there is no hope for the draft resolution to be adopted. In addition, the French ambassador at the UN, Francois Delattre, accused Russia of causing the escalation in Syria by supporting the Assad regime in its military campaign to regain control of Aleppo.

Russia’s resolution that would rein-in Turkey relied on Washington’s hesitation since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. It also counted on the recent contradictory statements regarding the US position on the YPG. This has escalated matters with Turkey, prompting Ankara to hint at closing the Incirlik Airbase — used by NATO — in the face of the Americans.

The fact that Moscow resorted to the Security Council indicates Russia’s inability to stop any potential Turkish military action in the Syrian territories. Russia neither wants nor is prepared to engage in any direct armed conflict. This is not only because Turkey is a NATO member, but also because it would mean that Russian troops would be up against an army and air force capable of retaliation; it knows that Turkey would respond to any military threat. This is the opposite of what Russia is facing at the moment in both in Syria and east Ukraine, which some have labelled its actions as “war games”.

If we take into consideration the veto against the Russian demand for a resolution to stop Turkey, then the result was counterproductive, as it gave Ankara an implicit green light and more time to follow up on what it is doing to protect its borders and national security within and beyond its territory.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons group sent a warning to Ankara on Wednesday, with a car bomb in the centre of the Turkish capital, killing 28 people. A statement issued by the group on its website on 17 February stated that one of its fighters carried out a suicide attack in Ankara against Turkish soldiers. The same group also claimed responsibility in December for a mortar attack against Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. In response to the Ankara car bomb, Turkey stepped up its bombing of several areas in Aleppo under the control of the Syrian Kurdish militias.

The Syrian extension of the PKK, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the most prominent Syrian Kurdish forces and militias, the YPG, which are all regarded as terrorist organisations by Ankara, control three-quarters of the Syrian border with Turkey. They also continue to provoke Turkey by advancing into areas where the Syrian regime had previously promised that it would prevent any armed Kurdish activity, and prevent the Turkish army from crossing into Syria to hunt down Kurds, as it has done in the past. Such escalation is thus carried out implicitly, as both Kurdish groups currently have US and Russian support due to their supposed confrontation with Daesh.

In action seen by observers as provocative not only to Ankara, but also to the Arab Syrians who constitute the majority of the population, the YPG militias have changed place names from Arabic to Kurdish in the areas under their control in Syria. For example, they now call Menagh military airport “Serok Apo”, meaning “father commander”, a reference to Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK. They also call the town of Tel Rifaat, “Arpad”, and have changed the names of 20 other areas.

The world knows that Turkey has been in a special situation throughout the Syrian revolution due to its unwillingness to attack neighbouring countries, which would provoke retaliation. Turkey does not want to risk any action beyond its borders at a time when the state is engaged in a domestic struggle against what it refers to as the PKK “terrorist organisation”.

In light of these developments, the possibility of a safe zone is being discussed once again, after the French foreign ministry issued a statement yesterday saying that it will discuss a Turkish proposal with Germany to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria. The statement also confirmed that French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will meet with his German counterpart soon to discuss the issue. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated last Wednesday her country's support for the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, pointing out that the zone will prevent the death and displacement of more civilians in Aleppo in northern Syria.

Ankara’s request for a safe zone early on in the Syrian revolution was not solely a Turkish initiative, as Syrian rebels demanded this during the “Friday of a No-Fly Zone” in November 2011, as well as during the “Friday of a Buffer Zone” in January 2012. The issue of the safe zone has turned into a regional topic in southern Turkey and northern Jordan, after hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing Assad’s air strikes flocked across the borders of the two neighbouring countries.

In 2014, Ankara included the safe zone as part of its conditions to participate in the war against Daesh, aiming to provide a safe area for Syrian refugees fleeing Assad’s bombs and explosive barrels, until they are able to return to their homes. This would reduce the number of additional refugees coming to Turkey, and ease the burden on the neighbouring countries that are no longer capable of absorbing hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict.

However, Russia is against the establishment of a safe zone, following its direct military intervention in Syria, and it is working on making the matter unfeasible on the ground. It is doing this by imposing a new fait accompli on the ground by means of its arbitrary and indiscriminate bombing, its adoption of a scorched earth policy, and the displacement of the largest possible number of people in an obvious attempt to change the demography. Moscow has now resorted to supporting the YPG — the Syrian extension of the PKK —in order to weaken Turkey’s role in Syria and create unrest inside Turkey as a form of revenge.

Translated from Alkhaleejonline, 20 February, 2016.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleEurope & RussiaInternational OrganisationsMiddle EastOpinionRussiaSyriaTurkeyUN
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