The Turkish military assault on Northeastern Syria threatens renewed chaos in the Middle East, elevates the risk of a fault-line war in the turbulent region, in this context what should be India’s long term strategic actions?

Turkish incursion- a recipe for conflict

US President Donald Trump on 8th October announced the withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 US troops from northeastern Syria which had played a key role in the region in defeating Daesh albeit with the help of the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces, the decision had taken by surprise not only President Trump’s Republican party colleagues and his foreign allies but the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces saw this as a betrayal of a valuable ally who had helped the US forces in uprooting the dreaded ISIS jihadist group in the region by liberating numerous cities such as Mosul, Raqqa from 2015 to 2017.

The decision has a potentially ground shaking ramifications for the maintainence of peace & stability in the already turbulent Middle East. To be sure, the withdrawal of U.S. troops itself is not the problem. Mr. Trump had made the campaign promise to wind down America’s military engagements in West Asia. Also, the U.S. cannot get stuck in the Syrian conflict forever. The problem is the way in which it is abruptly disengaging itself and the potential consequences. The Kurds have played a critical role in defeating the IS, whose fall began in Kobane, the Kurdish town which was liberated by the YPG in early 2015. Also, if there is a Kurdistan government in northeast Syria today, it is because the Kurds have captured all the major cities in the region, including Raqqah, the de facto capital of the IS, with U.S. support. But now, with the destruction of the IS “caliphate”, the U.S. seems to be abandoning the Kurds. The American presence may have held Mr. Erdoğan back, but with the White House saying that the U.S. troops “will not support or be involved” in the Turkish operation, the decks were cleared for Ankara.

Kurds and Turkey

The Kurds are members of a large, predominantly Muslim ethnic group. They have their own cultural and linguistic traditions, and most speak one of two major dialects of the Kurdish language, which is closely related to Persian. After World War I, Western powers promised Kurds their own homeland in the agreement known as the Treaty of Sèvres. But a later agreement instead divided them among Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Today, there are about 30 million Kurds living across the region, with about half of them in Turkey. Iraq is the only country in the region to have established an autonomous Kurdish region, known as Iraqi Kurdistan, inside its borders. Its parliament was founded in 1992. Historically the Turkish state and the Kurds had a historically antagonistic relationship right from the 19th century onwards. The Kurds constitute the largest minority group in the region making up almost 20% of the Turkish population, 12.8% in UAE among other West Asian Islamic countries. The relationship has been filled with acrimony, the Kurds were persecuted for their religious beliefs, they have been denied access to basic resources, citizenship and recognition to play an important role in the national development of Turkey.

Decoding the optics of the Turkish military offensive

Turkey has two main goals in northeast Syria: to drive the Kurdish YPG militia which it deems a security threat away from its border, and to create a space inside Syria where 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently hosted in Turkey can be settled. It had been pushing the United States to jointly establish a “safe zone” extending 20 miles into Syrian territory, but repeatedly warned it could take unilateral military action after accusing Washington of dragging its feet. President Erdogan has recently talked about pushing even deeper into Syria, beyond the proposed “safe zone” region to the cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, in order to allow still more refugees to return to Syria. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension to the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK) which has waged a violent insurgency against Turkey since 1984 in order to not only overthrow the government but to realize the utopian dream of an united Kurdish homeland.

Ankara sees the SDF as indistinguishable from Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey and has long sought to eradicate them. Now it is poised to launch an offensive – likely to boost Mr. Erdoğan’s flagging domestic popularity. It then wants to move many of its 3.6 million Syrian refugees – a source of growing complaints at home – to the area, reengineering its demography. Turkey never forgave its ally for partnering with the SDF; but Mr. Erdoğan may now find that thanks to Mr. Trump he has taken on more than he can manage. Thousands of civilians have fled their homes on both the Syrian and Turkish sides of the border, with the United Nations reporting Thursday that at least 70,000 Syrians were already displaced from their homes because of the latest escalation in the conflict. The Kurdish side said at least 10 civilians had been killed by Thursday evening, and local Turkish officials said at least six were dead on their side. In Turkey, one 9-month-old infant was among the dead. Erdogan, meanwhile, said that Turkish forces had killed at least 170 “terrorists,” which has not been independently confirmed.

India’s Turkish dilemma-through the prism of Kashmir

India’s response to Turkey’s stand and Indian interests has been consistent. Prior to UNGA, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with leaders of Cyprus and Armenia, two states that have heavy historical contentions with Ankara. New Delhi also released an uncharacteristically direct statement criticizing the military assault in the northern Syria, stating Turkey’s actions can undermine stability in the region and the fight against terrorism. India’s language mirrored that of Erdogan’s on Kashmir, sending a subtle yet straightforward statement to Turkey.

Turkey’s position on Kashmir has traditionally reflected its proximity to Pakistan, guided by the links between the two military establishments. Both countries were part of the anti-Communist military alliance, the Baghdad Pact (later Central Treaty Organization or CENTO). Membership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has been another abiding link between the two countries. On the issue of UN Security Council (UNSC) expansion, Turkey and Pakistan are part of the Uniting for Consensus group which opposes the idea of adding new permanent members, proposing instead a doubling of the non-permanent category to make the UNSC more representative. Erdogan has not stopped in just the Middle East; the president wants the world to view it as the Islamic power that stands up for the Muslims. At the UN General Assembly (UNGA) this year, he brought up the issue of Kashmir, highlighting the requirements of its close relations with Pakistan post the abrogation of Article 370 by India.

Image credit: Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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