Turkish troops are in northern Syria and Northern Iraq ostensibly on the pretense of fighting Daesh and YPG-PKK militants, though the central authorities in both Damascus and Baghdad publicly claim that this is an illegal violation of their sovereignty and that Ankara must immediately withdrawal. Erdogan’s intentions seem to have been laid bare when he announced just the other day that Aleppo and Mosul belong to the Turks, and worried observers point to his recent revisionist statements about the Treaty of Lausanne and the Greek Aegean islands to raise the relevant point that he might also formally claim the second-largest Syrian and Iraqi cities for himself. The fact that Turkey has armor, artillery, troops, and proxy fighters in northern Syria and Northern Iraq lend credence to the excited claim that the world is about to witness an impending geopolitical disaster on par with the run-up to World War II, but the sober reality is actually a bit different.
While it can’t ever be ruled out that the wily Sultan might backstab his new multipolar partners and go ‘straight for the kill’ by outright annexing Aleppo and Mosul under the cover of the US’ NATO nuclear umbrella, the chances are that Erdogan won’t end up doing this. His revisionist statements are inexcusable and indefensible, but they are mostly chest-thumping nationalism intended for his post-coup domestic audience. As for the international community, Erdogan is declaring what everyone had obviously known for years already, namely that Neo-Ottoman Turkey intends to establish a sphere of influence all around the “Greater Mideast”, with particular attention paid to its immediate periphery. Russia and Iran are well aware of this and will do what they conceivable can within the limits of their political will (the key caveat) to rein Turkey in, but observers would fret a lot less if Moscow and Tehran weren’t as contradictory with their statements and actions.
Great Power Diplomacy
Contradictions And Questions:
Russia, Iran, and Turkey are all Great Powers, and as such, each of them feels entitled to practice a multidimensional policy towards the others as part of their grand strategies. The outward expression of this can appear inordinately complicated and vexingly confusing, especially since it usually involves some degree of deceit towards their partners and the rest of the international community that’s observing this relationship in order to mask the true intentions behind every statement and action.
This is why the alternative media is beside itself trying to explain how in the world Russia could denounce Turkey’s military involvement in northern Syria while at the same time not doing a single tangible thing to stop, deter, or punish it. Many people don’t understand why Moscow would condemn this indefinite incursion while simultaneously dispatching President Putin to Turkey to hold friendly meetings with Erdogan and revive the stalled Balkan Stream project. Well-intentioned observers also can’t comprehend how and why Russia is friendly with Turkey again after it was Ankara that shot down Moscow’s anti-terrorist jet over Syria back in November.
Iran is also committing the same sort of seemingly inexplicable behavior as Russia is. Iran, which has been backing Syria against Turkish-supported terrorists since day one of the destabilization over half a decade ago, made a big deal out of being the first country to stand by “Turkey’s democracy” during the failed coup attempt, and Foreign Minister Zarif has since visited the neighboring country several times for high-level talks. Tehran’s actions are made all the stranger when one remembers that hundreds of Iranians have been martyred at the hands of Turkish terrorists as they fought and died to protect Syria from the Neo-Ottoman aggression being waged against it.
The only answer that properly addresses these questions is that Great Power geopolitics are at play in influencing Moscow and Tehran’s new policies towards Ankara. The author described the calculations that Russia and Iran are delicately balancing in an earlier article titled “Why The Failed Turkish Coup Attempt Wasn’t A “False Flag” Power Grab By Erdogan”, so the reader should refer to it if they’re looking for a more thorough explanation of each Great Power’s behavior, but it can summed up that both of them wanted to exploit Turkey’s unmistakable rift with the US and redirect the country away from the Atlanticism and towards Eurasianism.
It has always been far from certain that this gambit would succeed, but it was the “least bad” option of the two that Russia and Iran were confronted with. They could have reflexively rejected their Turkish rival, but then they would have lost a priceless opportunity for attempting a multilaterally beneficial win-win solution to the “Kurdish Question” and stopping the rise of an American-supported “second geopolitical ‘Israel’” in the heart of the Mideast. Being far from the diplomatic-strategic fools that Western trolls and faux “super patriots” claim that they are, Russia and Iran leapt at the chance to assist Erdogan in pivoting away from the West, though this has certainly not been without a large share of risk.
Like it was explained in the author’s article about “Turkey In Syria, The FSA, And The Upcoming Quarrel Over Syria’s Constitution”, Russia and Iran lack the political will to sustain an all-out military intervention in Syria, and this is why they appear to have coordinated with Syria in using Turkey as the “cat’s paw” against the US and Saudi Arabia’s proxies in the region. It might be that Moscow is afraid of being sucked into a drawn-out ‘Reverse Brzezinski’ military quagmire in Syria, while Tehran’s fears are more pecuniary and deal with its reluctance to see the West’s anti-Iranian sanctions reimposed on it, but irrespective of what their reasons are, it should be clear to all observers at this point that Russia and Iran are holding back from giving it their all in resolving the War of Terror on Syria.
In such a situation, Turkey’s military involvement becomes paramount in pushing back both the pro-American Kurds and Daesh, though Ankara is obviously doing this for its own self-interested reasons and with the expectation that it will replace each of these two groups with its own FSA proxies, like was explained in the above hyperlink for the purpose of competing to influence Syria’s forthcoming UNSC-mandated constitutional revisionism. Russia, Iran, and Syria have officially condemned Turkey for doing this, but it must be remembered that none of them have done a single thing to stop, deter, or punish it for this behavior, and Moscow and Tehran have on the contrary been improving their relations with Ankara at this very same time. This suggests that they tacitly support, or at the very least accept, what Turkey is doing, since the only alternative would be that these Great Powers have “sold out Syria” despite the sacrifices that they’ve paid thus far to protect it, which is ridiculous to even countenance.
Even so, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, and there are legitimate reasons for all observers to be concerned that the “least bad” scenario of Russia, Iran, and Syria secretly coordinating with post-coup Turkey is giving rise to the “worst-case” one of Ankara betraying its new “partners” and making an American-backed power grab for annexing Aleppo and Mosul. Everyone seems confused because the aforementioned multilateral coordination was never made public due to the heightened sensitivities that this would entail (especially for the domestic audiences in NATO-member Turkey and victimized Syria), so if one gathers their information only from official media reports and diplomatic statements instead of drawing rational inferences from the empirical evidence in front of them, then it does indeed look like something uncomfortably strange is happening when Russia and Iran reach out to Turkey concurrent with Ankara’s new territorial aggression against Damascus and Baghdad.
Annexation Or Sphere Of Influence?
This brings the research to the point of addressing Erdogan’s outlandish claims that Aleppo and Mosul belong to the Turks. Like it was written in the introduction, this is more of a chest-thumping nationalist ego boost to the post-coup Turkish domestic audience than anything, but it’s also a reaffirmation of what any aware international observer should have already known for a long time, which is that Turkey plans to construct a Neo-Ottoman sphere of influence all throughout the Mideast. The rhetoric and language that Erdogan is using is new (questioning the Treaty of Lausanne and evoking historical claims to three of his neighbors), but the intent itself shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who seriously follows Mideast affairs.
What is surprising, though, is how the “super patriots” that purport to side with Russia, Iran, and Syria have all of a sudden abandoned their hope in these three countries and seem to accept it as a fait accompli that each of them will passively allow Turkey to annex Aleppo and Mosul, pretending as though the Russian heavy weaponry in Syria and the thousands of Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen in Iraq have been rendered useless in stopping what would in that case amount to an unprecedented world-changing aggression by Erdogan. Only these “super patriotic” Facebookers can explain the questionable “loyalty” that they have to these states and the provocative emotionally-induced statements that they’ve disseminated all over social media about them, but more serious analysts have a rational way of approaching this topic in arguing that Turkey will not in fact annex northern Syria and Northern Iraq, contrary to the panic that the irresponsible commentators are spreading.
Against The Annexation Argument:
There are several strong reasons why Turkey will not be audacious enough to outright annex the second-largest cities in Syria and Iraq:
This December 2015 document explicitly states that the signatories support Syria’s territorial integrity, among many other things, and while there was never any hope that the US and its allies would seriously abide by this, it does give a powerful normative-legal justification for any future Russian attempts to remove Turkey from Syrian territory in the event that it gets out of line and oversteps the boundaries of whatever had been previously agreed upon in secret with its new “partners”.
The annexations of Aleppo and Mosul would guarantee that Turkey would have to fight a multi-front conventional war against not only its Syrian and Iraqi victims, but also their Russian and Iranian protectors, which would lead to the military-fractured Neo-Ottoman Empire’s destruction and the post-war imposition of a peace agreement infinitely more punishing than the 1920s Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne that Erdogan has lately complained about.
Any conventional state-on-state war that Erdogan launches would trigger an even more emboldened Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey that would undermine the Armed Forces “behind enemy lines”, and moreover, given the existing challenges with the Kurdish community already in Turkey proper, it’s dubious that the country could socially and politically integrate upwards of 7 million more of them in northern Syria and Northern Iraq, let alone those who are already highly trained, heavily armored, and have already been experiencing de-facto independence from their central governments.
Even in the absence of state-on-state conflict in the event that Erdogan convinces Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq to all “sell out” and fold in the face of his demands (as the “super patriotic” demagogues strongly imply has already happened), Turkey would still have to rapidly carry out a far-reaching policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to subdue the Arab and Kurdish inhabitants of his claimed territories and put down their insurgencies before they spill over into Turkey proper and lead to an unintended Hybrid War against his rule.
In Support Of The Sphere Of Influence Theory:
Having debunked the talk of Turkey’s apparently inevitable annexations of Aleppo and Mosul as nothing more than the hyperbolic reaction of loud-mouthed “super patriotic” Facebookers (who have ironically lost hope in the same countries that they supposedly support), the research will now take a turn in the direction of explaining why Erdogan’s revisionist statements amount to reaffirmation of his country’s long-standing ambition to carve out a sphere of influence in northern Syria and Northern Iraq. At this moment, Turkey’s actions aren’t being opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria, or Iraq in anything other than words, thought that could quickly change since the situation is definitely dynamic and indeed very dangerous, as will be elaborated on in the third section. For now, it’s important enough to assess the on-the-ground actions that Turkey is carrying out in support of its envisioned sphere of influence and keep in mind that they’ve been thus far tolerated (operative word) by each of the aforementioned countries:
Replace Daesh And The YPG With The FSA
Turkey’s operation in northern Syria is notable for the fact that it replaced Daesh and the YPG with the FSA using a comparably limited number of “official” Turkish troops, irrefutably disproving the fear mongers who at first incorrectly told everybody that Erdogan was launching a blitzkrieg offensive to annex all of northern Syria.
Use The FSA To Change Syria’s Constitution
The author’s previously cited article about “Turkey In Syria, The FSA, And The Upcoming Quarrel Over Syria’s Constitution” explains how Erdogan envisions using the FSA to change Syria’s constitution in order to weaken the central authority of Damascus and grant more “autonomous maneuverability” to the FSA-occupied areas of northern Syria.
Train The “Peshmerga” On Barzani’s “Invitation”
Pro-Turkish Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani went behind the back of the Baghdad central government in “inviting” Erdogan to dispatch Turkish troops to Northern Iraq as part of a “training mission” in aid of the “Peshmerga”, proving that the ‘legendary’ Turkish-Kurdish acrimony isn’t insurmountable and that selfish geopolitical reasons vis-à-vis Baghdad have succeeded in uniting Ankara and Erbil.
Use The Iraqi Kurds And Sunnis To Break Baghdad’s Authority
Erdogan is obviously gaming a few steps ahead in forecasting that post-Daesh Iraq will be a fractured mess of ethno-sectarian conflict, hoping that his deal with Barzani and the ‘caliph’-like Muslim Brotherhood influence that the Sultan wants to yield over the Sunnis will be enough to give Turkey the upper hand in determining Iraq’s future and countering the Iranian-influenced Shiite-majority in the country.
From Bad To Worst-Case Scenario
The pair of arguments articulated above explains why the author does not believe that Turkey is on the verge of annexing Aleppo and Mosul, but is instead carrying out a policy of limited military involvement aimed at improving the chances that its proxies will be able to influence the post-Daesh situation in their targeted countries. In the case of Syria, this appears to have been coordinated up to an uncertain point with Russia, Iran, and Syria, despite the diplomatic statements that all three sides have issued for their own political reasons in condemning what is technically Turkey’s illegal incursion into Syrian territory (in the sense that it’s not openly welcomed by Damascus). The situation is altogether different in Iraq, however, since it convincingly looks like Turkey is carrying out a unilateral policy that wasn’t at all coordinated in any way with Russia, Iran, or Iraq, instead being part of a grand power play by the Kurds to ensure that they’re the most influential actor in any nominally unified post-Daesh (Identity Federalized) Iraq.
The present state of affairs is very precarious from a structural point of view and so much could go wrong at any given moment, but that’s the nature of the gambit that Russia and Iran decided to jointly enter into by proactively engaging with Turkey in the run-up to and aftermath of the failed pro-American coup attempt. Russia and Iran both made a strategic determination that led them in the direction of this policy, and while anyone can question the wisdom of this choice and consequently render judgement upon it, it’s undeniable at this point that both Great Powers are working together with Turkey to varying degrees in advance of undeclared grand strategic aims, which explains why neither of them has yet to take any physical action in stopping the international deployment of Turkish troops in northern Syria and Northern Iraq. At the same time, though, Moscow and Tehran recognize that Ankara isn’t to be fully trusted, and President Putin and the Ayatollah know that Erdogan might turn against them if he senses weakness.
There’s nothing that any state or person can do to stop the intent (ideas) of another, but measures can always be taken to deter any action aimed at externally expressing these desires and make it known that they’ll lead to punitive consequences if undertaken. In the same vein, no matter how much Turkey might want to betray Russia and Iran in order to annex Aleppo and Mosul, these two Great Powers can take steps to deter Turkey by flexing their muscles in reminding Erdogan that he’ll be promptly punished if he made a serious move in this direction. Russia is deploying its only aircraft carrier and part of its Northern Fleet to Syria in the coming weeks and would thus be able to decisively respond from the Northern (Black Sea), Eastern (Caspian Sea cruise missiles), and Southern (Mediterranean Sea) vectors to any sustained Turkish aggression against Syria, while Iran directly borders Turkey and could launch cross-border attacks across their shared frontier if Ankara oversteps in Syria or Iraq.
All that’s needed in either case is the political will to enforce the red lines that they secretly agreed upon with Turkey over the summer, and while Russia and Iran have been purposely ambiguous in displaying their commitment to these (e.g. condemning Turkish “aggression” with their diplomatic statements yet not even taking the visible step of posturing their military units in response), that could all be part of their Great Power diplomacy, which in any instance has been successful enough for now at least that Erdogan hasn’t risked his chances in seeing what would happen if he overstepped his bounds. The author isn’t a clairvoyant, but he’s of the disposition that Turkey will not violate the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that it has with Russia and Iran, though it might explore how far it can go before receiving an unequivocal warning that enough is enough. Even so, other than the backstabbing that the “super patriotic” crowd is waiting way too eagerly to see happen, there are a few much more likely scenarios for how Turkey might (inadvertently?) spoil the grand Great Power gambit that it’s party to:
The Worst-Case Scenarios:
Erdogan and the Turkish Armed Forces need to recognize the perils of mission creep and avoid getting pulled even deeper into northern Syria and Northern Iraq as they chase the YPG-PKK and Daesh out of the region, keeping the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Russia and Iran in mind as a form of self-restraint in reminding them that Ankara’s best interests are attained through a limited conventional deployment in either country.
Loss Of Nerves
The onset of mission creep could lead to the very dangerous situation where Turkish conventional forces come within striking distance of their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts, and ‘over-enthusiasm’ for the mission (e.g. ridiculous statements about Lausanne revisionism and unsubstantiated claims to Aleppo and Mosul) could lead to a loss of nerves on either side that precipitates an unplanned clash between the two.
The Turkish military isn’t in any position due to the recent purges/’cleanings’ to launch a sustained conventional war against its Syrian and Iraqi counterparts, but it can be logically assumed that the US will try to employ its clandestine services to provoke clashes between them so as to instantly set the region ablaze in state-on-state warfare and draw Russia and Iran into a conflict with NATO-member Turkey.
Non-State Actors Go Rogue
In line with the US’ efforts to sabotage the Tripartite between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, it’s predictable that Washington will seek to encourage its Daesh and YPG proxies in bringing this about, though it’s also just as likely that Turkey’s own FSA and Iraqi Kurdish allies might ‘go rogue’ and undertake unilateral action outside of Ankara’s command or influence that sets the stage for the three previously stated scenarios.
The Mideast has been undergoing a geostrategic realignment ever since the failure of the pro-US coup against Erdogan, with Russia and Iran reaching out to Turkey and pragmatically cooperating with it in areas of shared strategic interest, which has mostly taken the form thus far of Turkey’s military involvement in northern Syria. Two of the author’s previous articles comprehensively analyzed the reasons for this, but they basically boil down to the fact that neither Russia nor Iran has the political will to commit the forces necessary for removing Daesh and neutralizing the YPG in northern Syria, ergo why they employed the ‘cat’s paw’ of Turkey in having Erdogan do this for his own self-interested reasons that ultimately work out to everyone’s benefit.
It looks like the Neo-Ottoman strongman got a bit too carried away, though, since he now seems to have unilaterally initiated a somewhat similar scheme in Northern Iraq, but this one is infinitely more dangerous because it’s done outside the scope of cooperation with any state actors. In parallel with this, Erdogan – as befits his personality – is relapsing into delusions of imperialist grandeur by irresponsibly questioning the legitimacy of the Treaty of Lausanne and reiterating Turkey’s long-dormant historic claims to Aleppo and Mosul, the second-largest cities in their respective countries and locations which neither Russia nor Iran will allow Turkey to seize. This unnecessary bravado had the effect of undermining the trust between the Tripartite and reminding Russia, Iran, and their international supporters of Turkey’s intentions.
There’s a huge difference between intentions and actions, however, and Russia and Iran have of course taken precautionary military measures well in advance in order to deter Erdogan from overstepping the bounds of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that he’s party to. Observers should always consider this when evaluating exactly what the Sultan can do in practice, because objectively speaking, his options are fairly limited, though with the crucial caveat being so long as Russia and Iran have the political will to enforce their red lines in Syria and Iraq to keep him at bay. Other than an explicit backstabbing, there are still a raft of scenarios that could foreseeably play out in provoking a conflict between Turkey and its present “partners”, though it’s presumed that all sides will try their hardest to prevent this from happening and avoid falling into the US’ trap.
There’s of course no certainty that the “official” peace that Turkey has with Syria and Iraq will be indefinitely preserved, but for now at least, it doesn’t look like any state actor is willing to risk World War III by blatantly violating it. The frenzied talk about a state-on-state conventional war breaking out over Mosul, Raqqa, and/or Aleppo is largely exaggerated, but it’s still nonetheless grounded in reality and has some legitimate claims behind it which make the affiliated branch of scenarios worthwhile to consider. After all, in such a delicate situation, anything could theoretically happen, and it’s thus wise to be aware of multiple (even contradictory) visions of the future in order to adequately prepare for any contingency.
However, in a forecast that certainly deserves further extrapolation in another article, it might just come to pass that Idlib – not any of the three aforementioned flashpoints – becomes the scene of serious state-on-state tension, but that would probably only happen in any case after the other three cities are liberated and Turkey is possibly faced with the “do or die” scenario of peacefully abandoning the last remnant of its proxies in Syria or directly fighting for their support against the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian and Iranian allies.
By Andrew Korybko