By Mehmet Bildik*
Since the Syrian Civil War broke out, the Turkmen population of Syria has been suppressed by military actions of Syrian government forces and has looked to Turkey for support and protection. Most Turkmens in Syria live in areas around the northern Euphrates River basin near Aleppo and in scattered villages across central Syria. After Turkey shot down Russian Su-24 bomber over an area sprinkled with Turkmens camps, Turkey declared, “No one can legitimate attacks on Turkmen in Syria using the pretext of fighting DAESH”, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Russian has now created its own virtual “no-fly-zone” in Syria since 30 September 2015.
In this context, some 1,635 migrants, mainly woman, children and the elderly, crossed into Turkey on January 29 and 30, 2016, after left their camps on the Syrian side of the border due to rising security risks as Russian and Assad forces bombarded Turkmen villages in the region. Much of this group had come to take refuge in the Turkish-built Yamadi camp in Syria after shelling by the regime and Russian forces’ intensified in the Bayırbucak region of northwestern Syria.
In the early days of its Syrian bombing campaign, Russia had a preference for targeting the sort of “moderate ” rebel groups supported by the U.S. and its Western allies, and many data analyses come to show that Russian airstrikes in northern Syria have “heavily targeted ethnic Turkmen areas.” With time Russia has come to support the Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist organization the PYD, which aims to ensure territorial continuity between Afrin and the Ayn-El Arab region. The group has already occupied the predominantly Arab and Turkmen district of Tal Abyad and has now started to suppress the local Turkmen people in what has been seen as an attempt to change the demography of the region. Indeed, Turkey refuses to let the Kurds control its entire southern border with Syria and has issued several warnings that it will engage in operations against the PYD if it crosses west of the Euphrates, as it did in July 2015 when Turkey agreed to let the U.S. use the NATO Incirlik Air Base to carry out airstrikes against DAESH.
All NATO decisions are made by consensus after consultation among member countries. Consultation between member states is a key part of NATO’s decision-making process, allowing allies to exchange views and information. In Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, members are encouraged to bring subjects of concern to the table for discussion within the North Atlantic Council; the Article states: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” After July 2015 Suruç bombing in Turkey, Ankara invoked Article 4 and thus requested consultation with all NATO members in view of the seriousness of the situation on the south eastern border of NATO after which the alliances strongly condemned the terrorist attacks against Turkey and expressed its condolences to Turkish government. Later the U.S. was permitted use of the NATO Incirlik Air Base and Turkish F-16 Fighting Falcons struck PYD-YPG targets and created a “temporary” no-fly zone between the cities of Mare and Jarablus in Syria.
Since the beginning of Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015, NATO’s southern border has been repeatedly violated by Russian aircraft. In response, Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber aircraft. At the time, NATO declared that the allies “strongly protest these violations of Turkish sovereign airspace.” Furthermore, Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg voiced further support of Turkey, saying that “ What you have seen is most of the attacks by Russia, so far, have been targeted to targets in parts of Syria where ISIS is not present.” On that point, while Russia strenghtened its ground presence supporting by Kurdish PYD groups in Syria in preparation for a tit-for-tat reprisal against Turkey, Germany began to deploy Tornado reconnaissance jets to the NATO Incirlik Air Base in order to protect the Turkish borders which had come to attract the interest of Russian-backed Kurds and DAESH. In this context, 10 innocent German citizens were killed in January 2016 in a suicide bombing in Istanbul after which the Turkish authorities detained several DAESH members, including Russians in connection with the incident.
While Russian support of the Kurds in the Middle East began to destabilize NATO’s soutern border, Turkish security forces had already been engaged in large scale operations against the PKK in Silopi, Cizre, and Diyarbakır to root out militants who set up barricades, dug trenches, and primed explosives to stave off government authorities. In some areas, the Turkish government has enacted intermittent curfews that bar people from leaving their homes in order to prevent civilian causalities amid Turkey’s efforts to effectively break PKK’s resilience. Amid these operations, in reaction to the terrorist attack against German citizens in Istanbul, NATO secretary General strongly condemned terrorism in Turkey saying that “ There can be no justification for such attacks. All NATO Allies stand united in the fight against all forms of terrorism.” Subsequently, the Turkish and German ministers of defense met on 21 January, 2016 at NATO Incrilik Air Base in order to formulate a military strategy against the PYD and DAESH in Syria.
The PYD’s seizure of the entirety of Syria’s northern border with Turkey is unacceptable for Turkey and the West needs Ankara’s assistance on several fronts, including with regard to the refugee issue and the fight against DAESH. If the PYD offensive continues toward Manbij and perhaps even further beyond Turkey’s Euphrates redline, NATO’s southern link to fight against DAESH could be jeopardized. In this sense, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with Turkish officials during his visit to Turkey on 23 January 2016 was attached great importance as Turkey expressed its opposition to the PKK affiliated PYD’s to participation in the Geneva negotiations on peace in Syria. Here, Biden described the PKK as a terror group “plain and simple”, suggesting that the militant group poses as much of a threat to Turkish national security as DAESH.
Biden’s visit to Turkey bore fruit, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that the PYD would be excluded from the Geneva talks. In terms of the negotiations, this development will grant Turkey the upper hand over a Russia which was in favor of inviting the PYD to the table. All this comes as Russia continues to flex its military muscle in the region. Russia has conducted a drill in the Eastern Mediterranean to test one of its anti-submarine destroyers’ surface-to-air missile defense systems as well as the AK-100 universal caliber automatic cannon and the AK-630 small caliber anti-aircraft artillery. In addition to such maneuvers, a Russian SU-34 crossed into Turkish airspace once again on January 29, 2016, ignoring several warnings in both Russian and English issued by Turkish radar units. In reaction to this latest infringement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia “ to act responsibly and to fully respect NATO airspace”, before going to say that “NATO stands in solidarity with Turkey and supports the territorial integrity of our ally, Turkey”.
One of the most important realities of the region is that strong, honest and efficient cooperation between Turkey and Israel would render both nations safer, particularly at a time when the Middle East is passing through its worst days. Both countries are concerned about the growing threat posed by extremist jihadist and other terrorist groups in the region that have been generated or strengthened as a by product of the unrest in Syria. In this context, the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations has gained increased importance with regard to NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue, as it could act to curb Russian influence in the region and grant State of Israel greater room to maneuver in the face of Hezbollah and HAMAS sponsored terrorism. In this sense a weakened Russia-Iran -Hezbollah alliances may grant Turkey and the West an upper hand in the post-Geneva talks era. Here, Turkey has already purchased highly capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from Israel Aerospace Industries. In light of the Turkish- Israeli rapprochement under the aegis of NATO interoperability and following consultation under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, Turkey may even come to launch pinpoint airstrike against PYD-YPG groups using Israeli-produced Predator Herons -Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in order to yield better outcomes.
*Mehmet Bildik is a research fellow studying military and strategic affairs with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a research assistant at the military and strategic affairs cyber security program of The Institute for National Security Studies under the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He received his MA degree at Bucharest National School of Political Science and Public Administrative Studies as a Security and Diplomacy Scholarship holder under the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.