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Fri. June 02, 2023
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Erdogan’s War? Analysing Turkish Motivations for Possible Syrian Invasion
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When asked about the effectiveness of democracy, Plato was unconvinced.

In his renowned work “The Republic” Plato took the example of a Statesman called Alcibiades who had the characteristics of everything that the ordinary masses found charming. He was wealthy, handsome and a disarmingly eloquent sweet talker. Like a candy seller, he gave people what they wanted. The popularity eventually went to his head. Convinced      of his own invincibility and fuelled by an ambition to consolidate greater power, Alcibiades, like any other demagogue, galvanised the Athenians into a war with Sicily promising riches and fame.

The war was a disaster and Alcibiades was replaced.

The immemorial wisdom in Plato’s warning about demagogues found eerie resemblance yet again in another statesman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Much like Alcibiades, Erdogan is ambitious and looking to improve his chances in the 2023 elections and a war with the Kurdish forces in Syria seems like just the right idea.

Why the Desperation?

The question of  Kurds has always been a major security challenge in the Middle East. Having faced multiple armed insurgencies, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran together always had a common security objective of never allowing any Kurdish groups to control independent lands in any of their respective countries. Strategists feared such a scenario would enable Kurdish groups to use that territory to launch attacks in all four countries. The Kurdish outfit ‘People’s Protection Unit’ (YPG), although supported by the US in their fight against ISIS, is seen by the Turks as an extension of ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’ (PKK), a banned terrorist organisation operating within Turkey.

Turkey believes an approximately 450 km long and 30 km wide buffer zone along the northern borders of Syria can prevent Kurdish insurgents from freely moving in and out. Additionally, the zone could also serve as territory for resettlement of Syrian refugees.

However, although the issue has been simmering for decades, it has become increasingly more pressing due to Erdogan’s domestic situation. To say he has mishandled the economy would be an understatement. Although the economy of Turkey was still recuperating from the losses of the pandemic, Erdogan, quite shockingly, decided to lower interest when inflation in the country was at a staggering 21%. This eviscerated people’s savings and caused a nationwide food crisis.

The crippling economy caused a cascading effect on Turkish public sentiments about Syrian refugees.They are now seen as a huge liability. The seasoned politician in Erdogan has taken the cue and  promised to resettle these 3.5 million refugees in the annexed Syrian territory, the logistics of which have been questioned by scholars.

Remarkably, the possibility of a Syrian invasion has aligned quite well with Erdogan’s recent foreign policy.

The Lofty Ambitions of Erdogan's Foreign Policy

Erdogan's foreign policy has three distinctive features.

Firstly, he ‘prioritises ideological goals, sometimes, even at the cost of hard material losses’ that often don't make sense rationally. For instance, he ordered the S400 missile defense system from Russia even after western allies warned him that such a move would divest them of any future opportunity to access F-35 jets.  More recently, he has been willing to jeopardize relations with India over Kashmir on the insistence of Pakistan, even at the cost of materially losing out when India signed a ‘defense agreement’ in 2022 with Cyprus  with whom they have a long military dispute.

Secondly, Erdogan believes in going big. In a significant departure from Ataturk’s ‘zero problem with neighbours’ approach,  Erdogan, leveraging Turkey’s indispensable geostrategic position, has wanted the country to play a bigger role saying “the world is bigger than five”. Despite the threat of sanctions, he made a deal with the Libyans and launched the “Blue Homeland” doctrine that claims territories over Exclusive Economic Zones of  Greece, daringly posing a direct challenge to UNCLOS rules.

Thirdly, Erdogan uses foreign policy to play to his domestic base. This is not the first time Turkey has contemplated invasion. In 2019, when Erdogan’s popularity was plummeting he launched Operation Peace Spring to capture northern parts of Syria and eliminate the YPG. However, both The West and Russia didn't like Erdogan’s jingoistic ambitions since it disrupted their fight against ISIS and caused a humanitarian crisis. The YPG was funded by the USA and Russia didn’t want Bashar al Assad to lose any territory. Without achieving the entirety of their aims, Turkey had to ultimately withdraw.

What Changed?

The world has been busy with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A depleted Putin is unlikely to spare troops for Assad’s Syria. Although the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned against any military invasion saying such a move will “undermine regional stability” Ankara unlike 2019 knows it was dealt better cards. Following the Russian invasion, The US needs Turkey’s support for admitting Sweden and Finland into NATO. Turkey finds itself in a unique situation where the core domestic necessities of Erdogan have aligned with absolute gains in foreign policy.

A full fledged invasion of Northern Syria forms perfect continuity with Erdogan’s foreign policy. It will play to his home base and position Turkey as a bigger stakeholder in Syria and the Middle East. However, before he starts off, he might want to consider Plato’s warning in Alcibiades. History has witnessed far too many leaders who set out on expeditions that looked far too simple, only to be bogged down into years and years of guerilla warfare. He might want to take the US’s advice on this one.

Nivan Bagchi is a Post Graduate in Political Science from University of Delhi, India. He has qualified UGC-NET and holds a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) in Political Science.

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