Syrians increasingly sceptical of Turkey’s promised actions

Despite Ankara's declaration of war on ISIL, there have been few Turkish air strikes against the extremist group and few visible moves to create a promised 'safe zone' in Syria, reports Josh Wood.

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Kobani after an air strike last October, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border. Kai Pfaffenbach/Files/Reuters
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KILIS, TURKEY // Syrians are growing increasingly sceptical that Turkey’s war on ISIL and a promised extremist-free zone in the area north of Aleppo will unfold as promised.

Turkey announced its war on ISIL in late July, coinciding with its announcement of a renewed campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – the PKK – inside Turkey and in northern Iraq.

But since officially entering its two-pronged war, Turkey’s dedication to its new fronts has been unequal.

Since hostilities with the PKK resumed, the Turkish government claims to have killed more than 2,000 Kurdish militants. Suspected PKK militants are arrested every day across the country and in eastern Turkey, the rumble of fighter jets is a familiar sound.

On the ISIL front, things have moved much slower.

Turkey launched an initial round of air strikes against ISIL positions in northern Syria on August 28, more than one month after declaring war on the group. A statement from the Turkish foreign ministry regarding the strikes mentioned the fight against ISIL as a “priority” for Turkey. But there have been few Turkish air strikes against ISIL since and few visible moves to create the ISIL-free zone.

But “it would be a mistake to make a comparison among the anti-terrorist operations carried out against these organisations,” a senior Turkish official told The National. “We continue to fight all terrorist organisations with equal determination and we expect the same principled stance from the international community.”

Now that Russia has formally intervened in the war on behalf Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, potential Turkish efforts to further get involved are now more complicated.

Turkey – and other coalition countries – has voiced its concern about the Russian intervention and called for Moscow to halt attacks on the Syrian opposition.

The presence of foreign jets in the skies – fighting for different agendas – is already a danger that Turkey will have to weigh. On Saturday, Turkish F-16s intercepted a Russian fighter jet in Turkey’s airspace in the south of the country, Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs said on Monday.

But even before Russia’s move into the war, many Syrians who support the opposition were uneasy about Turkey’s announced, but yet to be fully seen intervention.

“Turkey is bombing the Kurds more than ISIL, that is showing us that they are not trying to confront ISIL,” said Ali Rahman Al Hajj, a 21-year-old Free Syrian Army member from Marea, north of Aleppo. “All Turkey wants is to protect its borders from the Kurds ... I don’t think Turkey will do anything against ISIL.”

To some, the unrushed battle plan has been taken as a sign that Turkey’s intention was to confront growing Kurdish power with the promises of attacking ISIL meant to appease the west and allow them to fight the PKK without international criticism.

If Turkey does go ahead in establishing the safe zone, some Syrians have misgivings about what Turkey’s intentions for intervening would be.

Some are afraid that any creation of a safe zone will aim at breaking up Kurdish-controlled territory along Turkey’s border with Syria and preventing Kurdish forces from capturing more territory from ISIL.

“Turkey wants to make this safe zone not for the Syrian people – no, they want to make it for the Turkish interests inside Syria,” said Shiro Alo, a 25-year-old Syrian-Kurdish activist from the town of Efrin. “Turkey is scared of the Kurds and the first step is to stop the Kurds from liberating all the Syrian land along the Turkish border. The place where they want to make the safe zone, it cuts all the roads between Efrin and Qamishli, Tal Abyad and Kobani. This is the main reason why Turkey is making a safe zone: It’s not ISIL, it’s the Kurds.”

Others believe that Turkey is afraid of ISIL – the group has carried out bombings inside Turkey and last month kidnapped a Turkish soldier and killed another in a cross-border skirmish – but say that the safe zone is a way for Ankara to outsource the protection of their border.

“Turkey wants to create a safe zone so they are not in a direct fight against ISIL. With the safe zone, the Free Syrian Army will be before Turkey, so Turkey will not have to fight against ISIL face to face,” said Mahmoud Al Haji Othman, a photographer and media activist who frequently returns from Turkey to Aleppo.

The success of any military action against ISIL by Turkey will hinge on how it is carried out.

Taim Ramadan, an activist from the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, lived in ISIL-controlled areas up until six months ago and witnessed the US-led coalition’s attempt to weaken the group by using air power. The experience made Mr Ramadan believe that air strikes are not enough to dislodge the group.

“At the beginning when the coalition struck, ISIL members were scared. And you could see their bases were empty,” said Mr Ramadan. “But after one month or two months, the strikes cannot be as heavy as they were at first, so they start living like they did before.”

“With no power on the ground, nothing will happen. Air strikes stop ISIL for one minute or one day. The next day they just retake the base or the area again.”

A Free Syrian Army Lieutenant Colonel who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Yousef was optimistic that Turkey would help the Free Syrian Army make gains against ISIL, but said air strikes would only work in closely coordination with fighters on the ground.

“Currently air strikes are not effective because they are random, because they target ISIL without coordinating with troops on the ground,” he said. “What we need now is not heavy weapons, but coordination between the coalition and fighters on the ground.”

While Kurdish fighters have directly coordinated with the US-led coalition over air strikes against ISIL, Washington has been more wary of Free Syrian Army units and has sought to impose conditions – such as a commitment to only fight ISIL, and a careful screening process – before increasing cooperation.

While sceptical that Turkey will truly help Syria’s rebels, Mr Al Hajj, the Free Syrian Army member, said they do need outside support. Currently, his unit is bogged down fighting both ISIL and the Syrian government, but worn down after years of war, he says they can only hold the line and not make any advances.

Coalition air strikes, Mr Al Hajj said, were so far only bolstering ISIL’s support among the civilian population. To fight ISIL, he said, international actors first need to help the Free Syrian Army fight the Syrian government and provide more sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons.

“If we fight Assad in Aleppo’s Old City, we will lose the countryside [to ISIL]. If we want to fight ISIL, we need to bring all of our power to fight them and we lose Aleppo,” he said. “It’s not acceptable for us to deliver our lands we liberated to Bashar Al Assad just because we went to go fight ISIL. No, the first enemy is Assad.”