The series of airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northern Syria by Turkish jets in the past week come amid heightened concerns over Ankara’s threat to launch a ground operation. Such actions are not without precedent, yet have thus far achieved little in terms of eradicating the security challenges posed by US-backed Kurdish fighters.
Turkiye is today addressing an existential challenge to its national security and sovereignty, stemming from the United States’ quasi-alliance with Kurdish groups in Syria over the past decade – with whom Ankara has been battling for far longer.
However, this issue is playing out within a much broader regional backdrop today. Russia now has a permanent presence in Syria and is itself locked in an existential struggle with the US in Ukraine and the Black Sea. Iran-US tensions are also acute and President Joe Biden has openly called for the overthrow of the Iranian government.
Opposing the US occupation of Syria
Suffice to say, the Syrian government, which has demanded the removal of illegal US troops from one-third of its territory for years, enjoys a congruence of interests with Turkiye like never before, particularly in opposing the American military presence in Syria.
For the US, on the other hand, continued occupation of Syria is crucial in geopolitical terms, given that country’s geography on the northern tier of the West Asian region borders Iran and the Caucasus to the north and east, Turkiye and the Black Sea to the north, Israel to the south, and the Eastern Mediterranean to the west.
All of that would have a great bearing on the outcome of the epochal struggle for the control of the Eurasian landmass – the Heartland and the Geographical Pivot of history as Sir Halford J. Mackinder once described it in evocative terms – by Washington and NATO to counter Russia’s resurgence and China’s rise.
China’s involvement in the Astana process
A curious detail at this point assumes larger-than-life significance in the period ahead: Beijing is messaging its interest in joining the Astana process on Syria. Moscow’s presidential envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, stated recently that Russia is convinced that China’s involvement as an observer in the Astana format would be valuable.
Interestingly, Lavrentiev was speaking after the 19th international meeting on Syria in the Astana format with his counterparts from Turkiye and Iran on November 15.
“We believe that China’s participation in the Astana format would be very useful. Of course, we proposed this option. The Iranians agreed with this, while the Turkish side is considering it and has taken a pause before making a decision,” he explained.
Lavrentiev noted that Beijing could provide “some assistance as part of the Syrian settlement, improve the lives of Syrian citizens, and in reconstruction.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry promptly responded to the Russian invitation, confirming that Beijing “attaches great importance to this format and is ready to work with all its participants to restore peace and stability in Syria.”
Lavrentiev didn’t miss the opportunity to taunt Washington, saying: “Of course, I believe that if the Americans returned to the Astana format, that would also be very useful. If two countries like the United States and China were present as observers in the Astana format, that would be a very good step, a good signal for the international community, and in general in the direction of the Syrian settlement.”
However, there is no question of the Biden Administration working with Russia, Turkiye, Iran, and China on a Syrian settlement at the present time. Reports keep appearing that the US has been transferring ISIS fighters from Syria to Ukraine to fight Russian forces, and to Afghanistan to stir up the pot in Central Asia.
The Astana troika are in unison, demanding the departure of US occupation forces from Syria. Moscow knows fully well too that the US hopes to work toward shuttering Russian bases in Syria.
Turkiye’s pursuit of the US’s Kurdish allies
In fact, the aerial operations in Syria that Ankara ordered last Sunday followed a terrorist strike in Istanbul a week ago by Kurdish separatists, killing at least six people and injuring more than 80 others. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the air strikes were “just the beginning” and that his Armed Forces “will topple the terrorists by land at the most convenient time.”
Turkish security agencies have nabbed the bomber – a Syrian woman named Ahlam Albashir who was allegedly trained by the US military. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre hurriedly issued a statement to calm that storm: “The United States strongly condemns the act of violence that took place today in Istanbul, Turkiye.”
But Turkiye’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu reacted caustically to the American missive, saying that Washington’s condolence message was like “a killer being the first to show up at a crime scene.”
Conceivably, with Erdogan facing a crucial election in the coming months, the Biden Administration is pulling out all the stops to prevent the ruling AKP party from winning another mandate to rule Turkiye.
The Turkish “swing state” is crucial for US plans
The US feels exasperated with Erdogan for pushing ahead with independent foreign policies that could see Turkiye joining the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and deepening his strategic ties with Russia and China – and most important, steadily mark distance from Washington and NATO’s containment strategies against Russia and China.
Turkiye has become a critically important “swing state” at this stage in the post-cold war era. Erdogan’s effort to bolster the country’s strategic autonomy lethally undermines the western strategy to impose its global hegemony.
While Erdogan keep’s Washington guessing about his next move, his airstrikes in northern Syria hit targets very close to US bases there. The Pentagon has warned that the strikes threaten the safety of American military personnel. The Pentagon statement represents the strongest condemnation by the US of its NATO ally in recent times.
Russian diplomacy forestalls Syria ground incursion
Unsurprisingly, Russia is acting as a moderating influence on Turkiye. Lavrentyev said last Wednesday that Moscow has tried to convince Ankara to “refrain from conducting full-scale ground operations” inside Syria. The Russian interest lies in encouraging Erdogan to engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pool their efforts to curb the activities of Kurdish terrorists.
Indeed, the probability is low that Erdogan will order ground incursions into Syria. This also seems to be the assessment of local Kurdish groups.
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Commander Mazloum Kobane Abdi, who is the Pentagon’s key interlocutor in northern Syria, has been quoted as saying that while he has received intelligence that Turkiye has alerted its local proxies to prepare for a ground offensive, the Biden administration could still convince Erdogan to back off.
That said, Erdogan can make things difficult for the US and eventually even force the evacuation of its estimated 900 military troops, shutting down the Pentagon’s lucrative oil smuggling operation in Syria and abandoning its training camps for ex-ISIS fighters in northern and eastern Syria.
But the US is unlikely to take matters to a point of no return. A retrenchment in Syria at the present juncture will weaken the US regional strategies, not only in West Asia, but also in the adjoining Black Sea region and the Caucasus, in the southern periphery of the Eurasian landmass.
From Erdogan’s perspective too, it is not in his interest to burn bridges with the west. A bridge in disrepair remains a bridge nonetheless, which would have its selective uses for Erdogan in the times of multipolarity that lie ahead.