On 2nd October 2014 the parliament of Turkey has voted to allow its armed forces to enter Syria, and combat Islamic State’s militias. The entry of Turkey into the grand US Led coalition against the Islamic State has not just changed the power dimension in the ongoing war in Syria and Iraq but also over complicated the already complex geo-political situation in this war-torn region.
Turkey is the preponderant Muslim power in the region and its entry into the war in Syria would have tremendous repercussions for the major stake holders in the war as well as the region.
The Causes of the War
The war in Syria and Iraq has its origin in the sectarian mistrust and tensions that have always existed under the façade of Arab Brotherhood between the Sunni and Shiite population of region. These sectarian mistrust and antagonism drives the foreign policy of the Sunni and Shiite majority countries of the Middle East.
Syria, a Sunni majority country but ruled by a Alawite Shiite dictator, has always been a strong supporter of Shiite Iran. As such it’s relation with other Sunni majority countries of the region like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey remained strained and plagued with mistrust.
Thus when protest started taking place against the dictatorial rule of Bashar Assad in Syria during the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan allegedly infiltrated and financed Sunni Islamic extremists in to Syria to bring the government of Bashar Al Assad down.
This led to the Syrian war from which the Islamic State managed to carve out a sizable area and force their way into neighboring Shiite Iraq. This war has been extremely brutal and involved many large scale ethnic and sectarian violence.
The Three Sides of Syrian Civil War
Unlike most wars where there are generally two sides which are at play, this war in Syria and Iraq involves three if not four sides that are vying for power and, in some instances, fighting for their very survival.
At one side the US and its allies have achieved broad consensus among the western and middle eastern states regarding the need to defeat ISIS and bring stability to the region. They have mostly committed their non-ground forces to contain the Islamic State. Arab Republic of Syria of Assad along with Iran’s Hezbollah and with tacit support from Russia forms the other group which is engaged in the ground battles against the Islamic state and other Islamic extremist oppositions.
The Islamic State which revived the idea of Caliphate in the Islamic world after nearly a century, along with other Islamic groups like the Al Nusra Front of Al Qaeda can be broadly considered as the third group of combatants.
Finally the Kurds, who have sizable populations residing in both Syria and Iraq and other nearby bordering countries like Turkey, can be considered as the fourth stake holder in the current war. The Kurds have long cherished forming their own Independent State comprising lands from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Though they are fighting the ISIS along side the Iraqi and Syrian Government forces, there remains mistrust and suspicion between them.
The Ramifications of Turkish Entry into the War
The entry of Turkey into the war can have serious ramifications for the complex geo-political situation in the region, specially in Syria. Unlike all other US led coalition partners, Turkey can and will commit ground forces to blunt the offensive of the ISIS to make them retreat. The situation can turn noxious to the stability of the region if the Turkish forces find themselves face to face with Syrian government forces at the event of an ISIS withdrawal.
The relations between Turkey and Syria have long been strained. The controversial annexation of the Hatay State, a region inside Syria, by Turkey in 1939 , water disputes and Syria’s support to Kurdish Separatists in Turkey are the major irritants in the relations between Turkey and Syria. The Ottoman Empire , the predecessor of Modern day Turkey , have ruled for 500 years over the Arabs of middle East including Syria.
The bitter memories of Ottoman Rule and exploitation are still alive in the Arab consciousness. Thus the entry of Turkish soldiers into the Arab heartlands to defeat Islamic extremists will not go down well with the Arab countries specially Syria, which has already protested to the entry of Turkey into the U.S. coalition and called it “an act of aggression”.
Thus if hostilities break out between Turkey and the Syrian Army then it will aggravate the already dire situation in the region. Moreover Turkey is a member of NATO. U.S. will be obliged to come to the defense of Turkey and start open hostility with the Syrian forces, thus opening the doors for Russia to intervene in a more direct manner.
Turkey’s involvement into the war may be a legitimate and necessary to defeat the Islamic State but tremendous care should be taken so that instead of neutralizing the scourge of ISIS it doesn’t end up aggravating the civil war into a war between sovereign states with Great powers involved on either side.
It is time for bold actions and mature decisions, so that the community of nations can defeat the inhuman extremist forces collectively. Besides, care should be taken not to heighten sectarian and political rivalries between sovereign Nations.
Turkey’s direct involvement can either result in swift destruction of Islamic state or it might end up spreading and aggravating the war beyond the term “civil war”. We hope it is the former.
By: Avinandan Choudhury
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