A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army stands guard in front of a building in the border town of Jarablus
A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seen with a mural of the Islamic State in the background, stands guard in front of a building in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Although Euphrates Shield had exceeded its original mission and further extension of the operation involves political and military risks, Turkey is still eyeing control of al-Bab to create for itself a safe zone inside Syria and to reinforce the rebel forces controlling the eastern part of Aleppo city. 

The Turkish military incursion into Syria, which began on August 24 Turkey,, is getting to be one month old. Ankara faces a ticklish decision: Should it rename its operation code-named Euphrates Shield as the Sword of Osman used for the coronation of Ottoman Sultans?

Euphrates Shield began modestly as an operation to drive away Syrian Kurdish militia back to the eastern side of Euphrates River. It now wears the look of ‘Mission Creep’.

President Recep Erdogan redefined the scope of Euphrates Shield in a major statement on Monday. Having first taken over the Syrian border towns of Jarablus al-Rab, Turkish troops are “now going down as far as al-Bab”, as he put it.

Erdogan posed the question that is on everyone’s lips: “But why are you going down there?” Then, he offered an answer himself: “We need to rid these places from being a threat to us”.

Turkish troops are now poised to go 30 kilometers inside Syrian territory, close to the eye of the storm in Aleppo where a battle is raging between Syrian government forces and rebel fighters supported by Turkey.

Erdogan added: “As part of the Euphrates Shield Operation, an area of 900 square kilometers has been cleared of terror so far. We are pushing this line to the south now. We may evaluate this area as a total of 5,000 square kilometers as part of a safe zone.”

Erdogan simply shifted the goal post for Euphrates Shield to one of making territorial gains. Ankara has ignored the criticism from Moscow, Tehran and Damascus that the Turkish incursion is a violation of international law and an infringement of Syria’s sovereignty.

Curiously, Erdogan spoke only four days after the visit by the Russian Chief of General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov to Ankara on September 15, during which, according to Russian Defense Ministry, he had “an opportunity to facilitate assessments of the current situation in Syria and measures needed to support the cease-fire”.

According to Interfax news agency, Gerasimov signaled to his Turkish counterpart Gen. Hulusi Akar that Euphrates Shield had exceeded its original mission and that any further extension of operations could have political and military risks.

Erdogan apparently does not take Gerasimov’s warning seriously. Of course, Erdogan is a risk-taker by temperament. But in this case, he seems to coolly estimate that the end justifies the means, and he has the political space to maneuver.

The control of al-Bab is a double advantage for Ankara. One, it gives a major push for Turkey’s project to create a ‘safe zone’ inside Syria, which will be free of attack by Russian and Syrian jets or ground forces and becomes a de facto Turkish enclave.

No matter the lukewarm attitude of Western powers, including the US, toward the concept of ‘safe zone’, Erdogan anticipates that when a zone actually materializes, its raison d’être as a strategic foothold inside Syria will at once become obvious to NATO.

Two, al-Bab is hardly 50 kilometers northeast of Aleppo city. The control of al-Bab enables Turkey to significantly reinforce the rebel forces controlling the eastern part of Aleppo city.

Interestingly, Ankara asked US Special Forces to join the military operation to capture al-Bab. That is smart thinking, since the US military presence will be a guarantee against any Russian attempt to thwart Turkish control of al-Bab.

It is a magnificent trapeze act. Apart from neutralizing Russian opposition to the expansion of Euphrates Shield operation, Ankara also sets the unwritten rule that when it comes to ground operations in northern Syria, US Special Forces will remain Turkey’s junior partner.

The US has no choice but to accept the proposition because the alternative is that it would have even less of a role in northern Syria, where Turkish military is determined to dominate. In strategic terms, Turkey insists on defining the agenda in northern Syria — not the US-led coalition.

All in all, if Turkey held a weak hand up until two or three months ago, with the international community pouring scorn on Erdogan’s regional policies, it is now poised to create a compelling new fact on the ground in Syria.

The ‘safe zone’ in Syria would inevitably require the deployment of thousands of Turkish troops for years in the vast enclave of 5000 square kilometers. Evidently, Turkey does not foresee that the Syrian state would ever resuscitate to confront Ankara to vacate the occupation.

Put differently, Turkey hopes to be neck and neck with Russia in a very near future as a key arbiter in any Syrian settlement.

How did Erdogan achieve this feat? Simply put, he stealthily inserted Turkey into the crucial fault lines in regional politics — the geopolitical rivalry between the US and Russia in Syria and the great game unfolding in the Black Sea.

Turkey is exploiting to the hilt its strategic autonomy to traverse the no man’s land between Russia and the West. It keeps pressure points on the US (e.g.., extradition of Fethullah Gulen, use of Incirlik base, cooperation in the fight against Islamic State, etc.), European Union (e.g.., refugee problem) and NATO (e.g.., Black Sea).

At the same time, Turkey’s role is going to be crucial for Russia in the upcoming military struggle in the Black Sea, where NATO is contesting Russia’s traditional dominance.

From Russian viewpoint, much depends on Ankara’s application of the provisions of Montreux Convention (1936), which gives Turkey control over the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles.

Turkey will expect Russia to respect its legitimate interests in Syria, just as Moscow would expect Ankara to pay heed to Russian sensitivities over the increasing NATO presence in the Black Sea.

If Syria impacts Turkey’s national security interests critically, the military balance in the Black Sea is no less crucial for Russia’s own national defense.

In July in a pithy remark, Erdogan drove this home when he told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg: “Your lowering of visibility in the Black Sea gives the impression it is a veritable Russian lake. We have to make the Black Sea a basin of stability again”.

Turkey and Russia have normalized their relations since then, but Moscow has to think twice before challenging Euphrates Shield in Syria.

On the other hand, Turkish-Russian rapprochement compels the US and its EU allies to treat Erdogan with velvet gloves. This already compels them to go soft on Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent within Turkey.

The West revels at the sight of Erdogan eroding the Russian-Iranian dominance in Syria. Erdogan knows he will be in even greater demand as a coveted partner in Syria by next year when the agenda of ‘regime change’ in Syria gets reborn under a new US president.

The breakdown of the US-Russia deal on the ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria can only work to Turkey’s advantage. Euphrates Shield remains a seamless military intervention in Syria so long as the segregation of the ‘moderate’ rebel groups from the extremists remains a pipe dream.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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