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Questions About Turkish Military's Syrian Incursion Grow

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Image made from militant video posted online by the Aamaq News Agency, a media arm of the Islamic State group, Jan. 9, 2017, purports to show the moment of a Turkish missile strike, in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, in Aleppo province, Syria.

A video of hundreds of Turkish-trained Syrian police chanting "God is great — long live Erdogan" at their graduation this month has raised new questions about Turkey's long-term goals in Syria.

The police are set to deploy to Syrian towns recently captured from Islamic State during a Turkish military incursion into Syria launched in August.

The video led observers to wonder where the newly trained Syrian police place their loyalty — with Syria or Turkey, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That adds to the growing questions about the ultimate goal of Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey's military incursion into Syria.

"Turkey's armed forces' stay in Syria will be for the long term, as it was in northern Iraq since the early '90s," said Aydin Selcen, former senior Turkish diplomat who has served widely across the region. He noted Turkey's military has been in Northern Cyprus since the middle of the 1970s.

Turkish exit

"I do not see how and when the Turkish armed forces will be able to leave, to extricate themselves," Selcen said. "It is not in the Turkish army's tradition to die for a cause and then relinquish it to another."

Turkish forces have lost more than 40 soldiers in Syria, most battling to capture the town of al-Bab. Speculation about Turkish intentions is increasingly focused on the town.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus ruled out returning the town to Damascus, saying it would go back to the Syrian people. Meanwhile, Turkish forces are continuing to try to oust Islamic State from the strategically important town, which is the gateway to Raqqa, the jihadists' self-declared capital.

FILE - Turkish military vehicles drive by Free Syrian Army fighters, backed by Turkey, in the Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai as they head toward the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Jan. 9, 2017.
FILE - Turkish military vehicles drive by Free Syrian Army fighters, backed by Turkey, in the Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai as they head toward the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Jan. 9, 2017.

Russia may also be concerned about Turkish intentions.

"You cannot be an ally of Moscow and move beyond its wish," former diplomat Selcen said.

Moscow appears already to be making its intentions clear, with reports of Russian jets intervening on behalf of Syrian government forces advancing toward al-Bab. Analysts warn a military showdown could be looming.

"The Russians have cleared the path on the southern part of the city for the Syrian army to take it," said Soli Ozel, an international relations expert with Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "If the Syrian military is advancing against al-Bab from the south and [the] Turkish military from the north and the east, I think there can be a confrontation if both of them try to enter the city center. ... At the end of the day, it is Syrian territory."

PYD seeks al-Bab

Experts point out control of al-Bab is key to Ankara's bid to thwart Syrian Kurdish ambitions. The Syrian Kurdish forces of the PYD are seeking to control the town, which would open the door for them to a connection with the last remaining isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin.

That is a red line for Ankara, which accuses the PYD of secessionist aspirations and being allied to the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish state.

If Syrian government forces capture al-Bab, it could open the door to the PYD.

"If al-Bab is taken over by the Syrian forces, are they going to keep it for themselves or are they going to leave it to the PYD, like they did in Qamishli and Hasaki at the beginning of the civil war in 2011?" Selcen asked.

The battle for control of al-Bab symbolizes the increasingly difficult situation Ankara is facing in Syria. According to international relations expert Ozel, Ankara has a difficult hand to play.

"At the end of the day, unless Turkey wishes to remain an occupying power in the north of Syria, I don't see how they can keep al-Bab, if the Syria government wants its own territory back," Ozel said. "It will be very, very complicated, and I am not convinced at all Turkey has the upper hand on this."

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