Recent development in the war in Syria and Iraq have prompted some to take a closer look at Turkey and what maybe Erdogan’s grand strategy towards Syria. As the coalition forces, which include not only the usual NATO members but also a handful of Arab partner states have come together to conduct air strikes against the Islamic State, the spotlight has turned to Turkey to see if they will join the fight. As Turkish forces amass on the border with Syria and passively watch the IS slaughter Kurds in Kobani across the border, Turkey’s leadership made its conditions clear to the world: if they enter Syria to fight the IS, they are going to go all the way to Damascus, and the allies better agree to this plan beforehand.
So far, Turkey’s role in the conflict has been somewhat shady. Its key contribution was a largely porous border with Syria which led to thousands of jihadists from across the world to come and join the Islamic State ranks, creating a substantial terrorist threat to the world. Also Turkey continuously said that it wanted Assad out of Syria, and supported various Syrian rebel groups. However, as the conflict escalates Turkey’s role is about to become larger.
It is pretty clear that the Islamic State cannot be fully dismantled only with airstrikes, and a ground war is imminent. The situation on the ground looks bleak: we have under-armed Kurdish forces, an incompetent Iraqi army, a tired and preoccupied Syrian army, and a whole lot of fragmented militia groups like the FSA. Given the fact that some of these are fighting against each other on multiple fronts, they don’t stand a chance to defeat the IS, even with air support. The coalition countries are highly reluctant to enter into a ground war, and understandably so. So who is left, capable and willing to take on the IS. Iran is a possibility, but I don’t need to explain why the coalition forces will never let that happen. Turkey therefore is left as the only real chance of defeating the Islamic State, and the rest of the coalition are realizing it too little too late.
It therefore seems that Turkey may have a power play to really extend its influence in the region. If Turkey enters a full scale invasion of Syria, it will probably defeat the Syrian part of the IS without much difficulty, pushing the militants back to Iraq to regroup. It is hard to project how long it will take for Turkey to take out Damascus, but if other coalition forces join in on the fight against Assad, it shouldn’t take long. Afterwards, we have either a Turkey or a NATO occupied Syria, where they will likely hold elections all too soon, and a moderate Sunni Islamist government will be elected, likely with a very pro-Turkish stance.
But why is Turkey sitting on its border, watching idly how the Kurds are violently pushed out of their homes without doing anything about it? Well, it is – as always – about smart timing. If they go in too early, the will be perceived as aggressors intervening in other people’s business. If they go in too late, they will look like building up empire on ruins. But intervening in the moment the world is sick of its inability to act on slaughter and massacre, in the moment that Turkey is the only game in town – this is when Turkey will be savior-conqueror.
This will be seen as predictable, legitimate and acceptable by the world community. If this scenario unfolds, Turkey will really enter as a regional superpower once again, instead of watching from quasi-European sidelines, which will piss off Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Countries on one hand and really piss off Iran and Russia on the other.
Vincent McNamara is conflict analyst living southern Europe.