Turkish tanks were practising manoeuvres on the Syrian border August 2 as Ankara demonstrated its military muscle for a second day running. The exercises are being held after a series of Turkish military deployments to the area prompted by the spiralling violence in the 17-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. About 25 tanks took part in the exercises in the Nusaybin district of Mardin province, just two kilometres from the Syrian border; Mardin’s governor has been quoted as saying that they are expected to last for several days.
The action is being viewed as a sign of Turkey’s continuing unease over the Civil War across the Syrian border. Turkey is particularly concerned over reports that Kurdish groups related to the PKK have begun to exert increasing control over Kurdish areas of Syria amid the power vacuum created by continuing unrest. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu raised the issue of the Syrian government’s loss of control over its territory on Wednesday while visiting Massoud Barzani, President of Iraq’s Kurdistan government. Davutoğlu was keen to assert Turkey’s desire for a Syria free from any ‘extremist organisations,’ a group in which he would include the PKK, and that “…any attempt to exploit the power vacuum by any violent group or organisation will be considered as a common threat, which should be jointly addressed.”
Amid continuing clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan warned last week that Turkish troops would pursue fleeing PKK militants inside Syria, warning that Ankara would not hesitate to strike what it considered to be terrorists. This raises the prospect of the Syrian Civil War spilling over into a regional conflict that could lead to wider repercussions affecting the stability of several surrounding states. Despite comments earlier this week by Philip Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, that the USA would not support any break up of Syria post-Assad, Ankara remains uneasy about the prospect of a co-ordinated Kurdish fighting force in Northern Syria. In the longer term they fear that an autonomous Kurdish region could be formed there and create further pressure for an independent Kurdish state which could include calls for significant changes to Turkey’s borders and prompting further unrest in Kurdish regions of Turkey.
Speaking from Istanbul on Monday Gordon said that Syria should remain united: “We don’t see for the future of Syria an autonomous Kurdish area or territory.” This is not believed to be due to Turkish influence however, but rather a convergence of interests: generally it seems that the Turkish government currently have limited influence in this situation. The ongoing military exercises are designed to show that after the al-Assad regime falls, Turkey is determined to have an influence on the new Syrian regime. Whilst it is unlikely to wish to become embroiled in a military intervention, we continue to believe that Turkey would be willing to strike into Syria if it felt its security was under threat.
Tom Dixon, Research Associate