Turkey invades northern Syria. Is this Erdogan’s first move in creating the new Ottoman Empire?
Most who have been paying attention to the Middle East, particularly to the Syrian Civil War, have been patiently waiting for Turkey to escalate their intervention in that conflict. Well, that day came on August 24 when Turkish mechanized and special forces, numbering 350 soldiers,1 backed by artillery fire and air support, entered northern Syria. This Turkish invasion force was intended to support the advance of various rebel groups–such as the FSA, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Failaq al-Sham, and the Sultan Murat Brigade among others–on ISIL held Jarablus. The operation, called Euphrates Shield by the Turks, was a success and ISIL was expelled from Jarablus.2
While Jarablus has been captured, the Turkish operation continues. There are reports that more Turkish tanks have been deployed to Syria.3 The Turkish artillery bombardment is ongoing, as on Monday 20 targets in the vicinity of Jarablus were struck.4 Ahmen Osman, leader of the Sultan Murad Brigade, says the next move of the Turkish coordinated rebel advance is towards Mare, a town southwest from Jarablus and ~20 km south of the Turkish border.5 According to Osman “We aim to clean the whole territory under Daesh control at present. Our top priority is to clean a 70-km stretch of an area on the Turkish-Syrian border westward of Jarabulus.” In pursuit of Mare, rebels have captured 5 more villages, including Alwaniyyah, Qamir and Karakuyu, and according to the FSA the town of al-Bab is next on the list.6
Although some Turkish officials have basically said their forces do not plan on staying long in northern Syria–Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş reassured “Turkey is not an occupying country and is not entering a war”7–there is official indication that Turkey will be in Syria for awhile. As Prime Minister Benali Yıldırım stated “We will continue our operations (in Syria) until we fully guarantee security of life and property for our citizens and the security of our border. We will continue until Daesh (ISIS) and other terrorist elements are taken out.”8
What is the purpose of operation Euphrates Shield? To fight ISIL?
It goes without saying that operation Euphrates Shield is a development of paramount importance in the region, and as such we should thoroughly inquire into its motivations, purposes and intentions. It may be assumed that Turkey invaded northern Syria simply to deal with the problem of ISIL. In the words of President Erdoğan, “Right now, unfortunately, all the attacks which happened in Gaziantep and Kilis… brought this issue to this point. … This is the end. We said it needed to be finished and the process has started this morning at 4.00 a.m. We have to solve the problem.”9 When Erdoğan refers to the city of Gaziantep, he is speaking of a recent ISIL attack there in which a child suicide bomber blasted a wedding killing 56 people,10 while the border town of Kilis has, over the past couple of months, been frequently struck by ISIL rockets launched from nearby environs in Syria.
It is interesting to note that in July of last year there was talk of Turkey and the US creating an ISIL free zone in northern Syria, in the same area involving the current operation Euphrates Shield.11 Such plans appeared to be prompted by ISIL’s bombing of a Kurdish gathering in Suruç. It is also interesting to note that according to a senior Turkish source, Euphrates Shield has been in the works for 2 years, but FETÖ linked military commanders stalled its implementation.12 So we are to believe that with the Gülenists hamstrung in the wake of the July 15 attempted coup and ISIL’s recent activity against Turkey, that the latter has finally implemented their plan to combat ISIL. So shouldn’t we be happy that Turkey is finally going after ISIL with some gusto? Unfortunately this is only part of the story.
Are the Kurds the real target of Euphrates Shield?
Firstly the Kurds are suspicious about operation Euphrates Shield, as they report that Turkish and rebel forces encountered minimal resistance from ISIL. According to PYD representative Abd Salam Muhammad Ali, “Judging from how fast this ‘liberation’ took place, I have grounds to believe that this is a show. The militants shaved off their beards and rushed to join ‘moderates,’”13 Such criticisms by Kurds may be dismissed as being unfounded due to a heavy anti-Turkish bias, but it is becoming increasingly evident that in addition to targeting ISIL, Turkish and rebel forces are also targeting Kurdish militias in northern Syria.
While Yıldırım has dismissed claims that Turkey is singling out Kurdish forces as a “bare faced lie,” it is admitted by Turkish officials that they are in fact also targeting the PYD/PKK in addition to ISIL.14 Erdoğan has stated operations in Syria “will continue until the ISIL, PKK/YPG threat ends.”15 He also threatened the PYD, and ISIL, warning “They challenged us. They said ‘this and that will happen to Turkey in Syria.’ Now I am addressing them: You should think of what will happen to yourselves.”16 Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that the YPG would be targeted “until it moves east of the Euphrates River” and accused them of conducting “ethnic cleansing” in northern Syria.17
In addition to Turkish talk, there has been plenty of action against the Kurds during operation Euphrates Shield. Ignoring warning by both Turkey and the US to clear out of the ‘ISIL free’ zone and move to the east of the Euphrates river, Kurdish forces stood their ground and launched counterattacks on Turkish positions around Jarablus.18 DEBKAfile has gone so far as to call what is occurring in northern Syria an “all-out Turkish-Kurdish war.”19 The situation has even made the US rather unhappy as the Turks and Kurds no longer seem concerned with fighting ISIL, but instead with fighting each other. According to US official Brett McGurk “We want to make clear that we find these clashes – in areas where ISIL is not located – unacceptable and a source of deep concern. … We call on all armed actors to stand down… the U.S. is actively engaged to facilitate such deconfliction and unity of focus on ISIL, which remains a lethal and common threat.”20
At this point it should be clear that at the very least Turkey is as concerned with fighting the Kurds as they are with ISIL, and most likely are concentrating their efforts more on the former. If we look at a map of Syria the situation will make much more sense. The entire strip of northern Syria bordering Turkey can be divided into three portions. The western portion from Azaz westward to the border of Turkey’s Hatay province is controlled by the Kurds, as is the eastern portion, stretching from just east of Jarablus all the way to the border with Iraq. In the middle is a zone controlled mostly by ISIL, from Jarablus westward to Azaz. It is this central portion that Turkey wants to make into an ISIL free zone.
With ISIL losing territory in this middle portion, most recently the city of Manbij, it is a possibility that the entire northern strip of Syria bordering Turkey will come under the control of the Kurds, an area which they call Rojava. The creation of a de facto Kurdish state of Rojava is unacceptable to Turkey. In my opinion it is for this reason that operation Euphrates Shield has been launched. Its intention is to prevent the eastern and western portions of Kurdish Rojava from being territorially united. Turkey is not so much concerned with creating an ISIL free zone as a Kurd free zone. As such the actual event precipitating the Turkish invasion of northern Syria was not ISIL’s attacks on Kilis or Gaziantep, but was the capture of Manbij by the Kurds and others on August 12.
It also seems likely that the Turks will not be content with maintaining a Kurd free zone from Azaz to Jarablus, but will continue their offensive into the eastern and western portions of Kurdish held territory in northern Syria. In a recent article by Ibrahim Karagül, a journalist very close to Erdoğan, he writes, “Because these plans are aimed to divide both Syria and Turkey. Hence, the PKK/PYD activity starting from Afrin to Qamishli needs to be stopped, the demographic intervention in the region must be prevented. Because these forces are once again going to be used in an open war against Turkey at the first opportunity, and strike Turkey both from within and without.”21 Afrin is found in the western Kurdish zone and Qamishli in the eastern Kurdish zone, as such we can read between the lines and expect that Turkish forces and their rebel proxies will move on these two cities in the future.
Turkey is making use of non-ISIL Islamist groups
It should also be noted that while Turkey purports to be against ISIL and its brutal perversion of ‘true’ Islamic doctrine they have little problem with other Islamist rebels groups that are operating in Syria, which they are cooperating with in operation Euphrates Shield. For instance one such group is the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. Those familiar with the history of the Crusades may correctly associate the group’s name with Nur ad-Din, the one time Atabeg of Aleppo who was a fearsome foe of the Crusaders during the 12th century. Others, more familiar with current events, may recognize the group from a video in which some of its members are seen mocking a child they accuse of fighting for Liwaa Al Quds (a militia allied to Assad), who they then proceed to behead.22 Apparently we are to believe that the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement is a moderate rebel faction.
Then there is a photo which shows an alleged FSA member nonchalantly sitting in a chair while stepping on the head of a Kurdish child.23 Apparently this is how some in the moderate FSA celebrated their capture of Jarablus. As a side note it is interesting that the images and video of the young boy beheaded by Nour al-Din al-Zenki or the photo of the Kurdish boy having his head stepped on by an FSA member, are not getting anywhere near as much media air time as the photo of 5 year old Omran Daqneesh, bloodied, covered in grey dust and in shock after surviving an alleged Russian air strike in Aleppo. I guess one’s value as a victim of war depends on whether or not the perpetrator of their suffering is an ally of the US. Regardless, while Turkey claims to be against ISIL because they are violent Islamists, they seem to have little problem in supporting other violent jihadi groups, as long as they serve their geopolitical purpose. I do not doubt that Turkey is fighting against ISIL, but what I do doubt is whether they are fighting them to the maximum of their ability, and I highly suspect that they are not intrinsically against ISIL’s Islamist ideology, as Erdoğan himself is an Islamist.
Foreign response to operation Euphrates Shield
One important question that arises from Turkey’s military foray into northern Syria is how other nations will respond to it. Initially it appeared that most nations were supportive of the operation, but as the Turkish-Kurdish clashes have increased in intensity, foreign criticisms also has increased. For instance initially the US seemed to be very supportive of Turkey’s actions. US officials have admitted that the US military is providing intelligence and surveillance, and, if needed, air cover, for the Turkish offensive.24 US Vice President Joe Biden, while on an official visit in Turkey concurred with the Turkish stance that pro-Kurdish forces “must go back across the [Euphrates] River,” and warned that “They cannot and will not, under no circumstances, get American support if they do not keep that commitment.”25 Furthermore, according to DEBKAfile, since Euphrates Shield has commenced the US has stopped providing ammunition and intelligence to Kurdish militias and have withdrawn US special forces embedded with the YPG.18
However, things appear to be souring. We have already discussed US exhortations that the clashes between the Turks and Kurds cease so that both groups can focus their energies on ISIL. This message was reiterated by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter who stated, “We have called upon Turkey… to stay focused on the fight against Daesh and not to engage Syrian Defense Forces [pro-Kurdish militias].”26 The problem for the US is that a large portion of their anti-ISIL strategy relies on the Kurdish militias in Syria, but that strategy may be ruined by their so-called ally Turkey’s operation against these militias, which it should be realized have been very effective in the battle against ISIL. We will have to wait and see how the US will respond to these developments. Will they ditch the Kurds to propitiate Turkey?
Europe also appeared to being supporting operation Euphrates Shield as an official from the European Parliament stated “I think fighting ISIS is something where we all stand together with Turkey.”27 Not surprisingly the Germans were also supportive and even appeared to be understanding of Turkey’s targetting of PKK units on the Turkish-Syrian border.28 However, European support may already be faltering as French President Francois Hollande has warned that “These multiple, contradictory interventions carry the risk of a wider conflagration” and he called for an “absolutely urgent” halt to the fighting between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria.29
Probably the most interesting reaction has been that of Russia’s. Upon learning of Turkey’s invasion, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “Moscow is seriously concerned by the developments on the Syrian-Turkish border, and is especially alarmed by the prospect that the situation in the conflict zone will continue to deteriorate, resulting in greater civilian losses and heightened ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds.”30 Furthermore Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and spokeswoman Maria Zakharova have also their concerns over the situation in northern Syria, with the latter advising Turkey to “avoid shelling locations where opposition and ethnic forces could be [located], including Syrian Kurds.”31 Notwithstanding Russia’s concern of the operation, it does appear they are in some manner supportive of it.
The greatest evidence of Russia’s tacit support is the fact that they are not shooting down Turkish aircraft that are bombing targets in Syria, which they easily could do with the S-400 system or their fighter planes. It should be remembered that after downing a Russian Su-24 in November of 2015, Turkish airplanes ceased bombing Kurdish and ISIL targets in Syria for fear of Russian retaliation. As far as I know Euphrates Shield is the first time since November that Turkish warplanes bombed targets in Syria. This indicates that Turkey notified Russia of their operation–which Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş obliquely admitted to32–and Russia acquiesced. It is safe to presume that Turkey was being very pragmatic with their apology to Russia over the downing of the Su-24, and possibly their desire to carry out Euphrates Shield was one of the reasons for the apology. As a result of normalization of Turkish-Russian ties, and to further this relationship, it appears Russia is now willing to forgo their prior support for the Kurdish militias in Syria. Russia may consider being supportive of Turkey as an effective stratagem to drive a wedge between Turkey and the US, which is a relationship already experiencing considerable tensions.
Adding further complexity to the relationship between Turkey and Russia is the fact that Assad is not overly pleased with Turkey’s little military incursion into his country. The Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as a “flagrant violation of Syria’s sovereignty.”33 Furthermore, Turkish leaders had made recent statements, such as Yıldırım saying “Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future” or Erdoğan claiming democracy in Syria is impossible if Assad remains in power.34 One wonders how Russia will juggle their rapprochement with Turkey with their longstanding support of Assad.
Why was August 24 picked as the beginning of Euphrates Shield?
I have left the most significant aspect of operation Euphrates Shield for the end of this post. At a certain level it may seem perfectly intelligible why Turkey decided to invade northern Syria–to prevent the Kurds from completing the territorial unification of their state of Rojava and maybe to deal with ISIL a bit–but one may wonder as to the timing of the operation. Thanks to the keen eyed Walid Shoebat, it is apparent that the starting date of operation Euphrates Shield, is of particularly historical significance to Turkey and the rest of the region. In a recent article Shoebat points out that August 24, 2016 is the 500th year anniversary of the Battle of Dabiq which occurred in 1516.35 Dabiq is a town in northern Syria, which happens to be apart of the ISIL-free zone that Turkey apparently wishes to create. The battle that occurred at Dabiq 500 years ago involved the forces of the Ottoman Empire lead by Yavuz Sultan Selim against the Mamluk Sultanate. Selim and his army emerged victorious. The victory represented the solidification of Ottoman power in the Middle East, enabling them to anex Syria and eventually destroy the Mamluk Sultanate and become the dominant Muslim power in the Middle East.
Walid Shoebat and many in the Muslim world do not believe the coinciding of the anniversary of the Battle of Dabiq with the start of Euphrates Shield is a coincidence. Instead it was a well chosen date that reveals the true intention of Erdoğan, his desire to recreate the Ottoman Empire. Of course some people will dismiss Shoebat’s conclusions as the ravings of a Islamophobe and a Turkophobe. However, his conclusion appears to be perfectly valid as there is other evidence to support it. For instance on August 26, a newly constructed bridge crossing the Bosporus Strait was opened, the third such bridge.36 Big deal one may scoff. Well, it is a big deal, as the official name of this impressive bridge that connects Europe with Asia is the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge! I guess this is just another coincidence.
If one needs further evidence of the meaningful connection of these events, then an article by pro-Erdoğan journalist Ibrahim Karagül may do the trick.37 His article starts as follows: “On Aug. 26, 2016, the capital of empires, Istanbul, the gate to both the East and West, was stage to a message-filled historic opening on these chaotic days, not only for Turkey, but for the entire world. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge with Turkey’s friends and supporters in attendance.” Continuing he declares that the opening of the bridge displays Turkey’s resiliency and strength, especially in the aftermath of the July 15 attempted coup.
Then he delves into the significance of Sultan Selim:
“On the 500th anniversary of Yavuz Sultan Selim’s great expedition, which united the geography, on the anniversary of the geography being turned into a joint homeland, while that region, from Egypt to Syria is being destroyed and the same destruction scenarios are aiming for the heart of Turkey, we are a nation that joins the East and the West, that says joint homeland, united geography once again.”
Karagül concludes writing:
“We will rise again and build a brighter future again. We are going to address much beyond Anatolia and take gigantic steps toward turning the region into a joint homeland once again. … But we will not be on the defense in any way. We will not have the attack on our border. If we are going to fight, we are going to fight not in our cities but theirs. We will fight not in our home but theirs. We will catch the attackers not in Istanbul, Ankara or Konya, but in their homes.”
So Karagül clearly indicates, that in his mind, countries such as Egypt and Syria, which were once apart of the Ottoman Empire, are still apart of the Turkish homeland and that one day this “joint homeland” will be made into a reality. In other words he is advocating and predicting the reformation of the Ottoman Empire.
It should be remembered that Karagül is closely associated with Erdoğan and even accompanied the latter on his recent historic trip of reconciliation to Russia. As such, it is no stretch of the imagination to suspect that the ideas expressed within Karagül’s article are also shared by Erdoğan himself. Regardless I would highly doubt that Erdoğan would disagree with anything that Karagül wrote.
When Turkey invaded northern Syria on August 24, it is true that the operation was intended to deal with the Kurdish problem, but the actual significance of operation Euphrates Shield, is much greater than that. It is clear, based on the date of the invasion, the subsequent opening of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, Karagül’s revealing article and Walid Shoebat’s prescient analysis, that Euphrates Shield can be considered the first external step by Erdoğan in realizing his desire to reform the Ottoman Empire. So don’t expect Euphrates Shield to be a limited operation. There may be lulls in action, but ultimately there will be much more to come. If the Turkish backed rebels take Al-bab, then they will move on to Mare. After that they could move on to Afrin in the west and then eastward all the way to Qamishli. Once northern Syria has been secured then the rest of Syria must be brought under heal. On and on until the once great Ottoman Empire has been reconstituted.
We know that Erdoğan has the implacable will to accomplish this grandiose plan, but does he have the military means to do? And how will the US and Russia, not mention all the Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries that will be in his way, react to this, especially once it becomes even more obvious what Erdoğan is attempting to accomplish? All we can do is wait and see how this drama eventually unfolds.
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/isil-uses-child-bomber-in-attack-that-killed-51-in-se-turkey.aspx?pageID=238&nID=103062&NewsCatID=341 , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/death-toll-in-gaziantep-attack-rises-to-56.aspx?pageID=238&nID=103387&NewsCatID=341
 http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/08/29/482237/Turkey-Mevlut-Cavusoglu–YPG-Kurds-Daesh , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-says-ypg-to-be-targeted-unless-it-moves-east-of-euphrates-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=103333&NewsCatID=352
 http://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2016/08/21/pm-assad-has-no-future-in-syria-presence-in-transition-minor-detail , http://presstv.com/Detail/2016/08/24/481551/erdogan-biden-assad-turkey-syria