Erdogan finally admits the real reason for his military intervention in Syria
On August 24, Turkey surprised many when it launched operation Euphrates Shield, a military intervention in northern Syria involving Turkish forces and rebel groups such as the FSA, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Failaq al-Sham, and the Sultan Murat Brigade among others. At the time we were told that the reason for the intervention was to create an ISIL-free zone in northern Syria.
Stretching from Jarablus in the east to Azaz in the west (~80 kilometers) and going as deep into Syrian territory as Manbij and Al-Bab (~25 kilometers from the Turkish border), extirpating ISIL from this zone will help secure Turkey’s border regions, preventing ISIL rocket attacks on border towns such as Kilis and suicide bombing such as the ones that occurred in Suruç and Gaziantep among others. So we are told.
Yet to me and others Turkey’s initially stated objectives seemed suspect.1 For instance why all of sudden is Turkey taking a strong stance against ISIL, when for years prior they did little to combat ISIL and actually, on certain occasions, seemed to be helping them? Or why during Euphrates Shield itself are there reports that in certain towns the invading forces met minimal resistance?2 Also why is the intervention targeting Kurdish groups such as the PKK and PYD as much or even more so than ISIL, such that even the US was complaining of Turkish Kurdish clashes?3 As such it seems that Turkey is more concerned with creating a Kurd-free zone than an ISIL free one in northern Syria.
Furthermore, the day that Euphrates Shield was commenced, August 24, is one of historical significance.4 It marks the 500th year anniversary of the Battle of Dabiq, during which an Ottoman army defeated the Mamluks. The battle was an important event in the establishment of the Ottoman Empire. With this in mind it seems unlikely that choosing August 24 as the start of Euphrates Shield was a coincidence and as such indicates that, in addition to countering the Kurds, the real purpose of the operation is to further the re-establishment of Erdoğan’s dream, a new Ottoman Empire.
Now we have further evidence, from Erdoğan’s own mouth, that this is in fact the case. Speaking of the Syrian Civil War before the Inter-Parliamentary Jerusalem Platform Symposium in Istanbul Erdogan revealed (emphasis mine):5
“Why did we enter? We do not have an eye on Syrian soil. The issue is to provide lands to their real owners. That is to say we are there for the establishment of justice. We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror. [We didn’t enter] for any other reason.”
One may wonder what does ousting Assad from power have to do with restarting the Ottoman Empire? The answer is that Assad basically represents nationalism in the Middle East, and nationalism is in effect antithetical to neo-Ottomanism, which can be considered a form of internationalism. If Assad remains firmly in power, then he will be a hindrance to Erdoğan’s aspirations, and hence he must go.
It is also interesting to note the timing of Erdoğan’s statement. It follows the deaths of three Turkish soldiers north of Al Bab Syria, who reportedly were killed by a Syrian regime airstrike,6 although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Syrian or Russian aircraft were involved in the incident.7 As well Assad’s forces seem to be in the ascendency in Aleppo and could very well capture the strategically critical city in the near future. Undoubtedly Erdoğan must not be too pleased with such developments, which probably prompted him to state his true intentions vis-à-vis Turkey’s military intervention in Syria.
In the aftermath of Erdoğan’s moment of candor, the Russians were rather taken aback. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Erdoğan’s statement as “very serious” and differing “from previous ones and with our understanding of the situation. We hope that our Turkish partners will provide us with some kind of explanation about this.”8 Erdogan also clarified his statements in a phone conversation with Putin.9
Not surprisingly Erdoğan has now publicly backtracked, stating:10
“The aim of the Euphrates Shield Operation is no country or person but only terror organizations. No one should doubt this issue that we have uttered over and over, and no one should comment on it in another fashion or try to [misrepresent its meaning].”
Of course Erdoğan has to walk a fine line in maintaining his rapprochement with Russia, but backtracking aside, his initial admission that Turkey’s intervention in Syria was intended to “to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad” is his actual objective.
It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out. As Assad makes further progress in Aleppo and comes closer to re-capturing the city, how will Erdoğan respond. If Assad is able to retake Aleppo, then such an accomplishment will maintain him in power for the foreseeable future and may in fact enable Assad to win the long and bloody civil war raging in Syria. Such possible developments do not jibe with Erdoğan’s megalomaniacal aspirations. Some thing has to give in this situation, and Erdoğan either will sit back and do nothing or he will be forced to escalate his military intervention in Syria possibly to the point of direct confrontation with Assad. When one throws Russia, Iran, NATO, and the new Trump administration into the mix, then the situation in northern Syria could easily get out of hand.