Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, outlining Turkey’s Syria strategy, what it has aimed and achieved so far, and what it can do more. The piece tells the reader that Turkey is the right choice for the U.S. to cooperate with during and after its withdrawal from Syria. Erdogan argues that Turkey is the first country to fight Daesh with ground troops and hence militarily capable of defeating the organization. Further, the most significant part of the piece is that Turkey is not only defeating the bad guys but also is the best shot for helping the good guys, the civilian population, in Syria.
Let’s start evaluating the op-ed with the former point. Turkey has engaged in two military incursions in Syria. The first one was the Euphrates Shield in the Cerablus, Azaz, Al-Bab triangle from August 2016 to March 2017. Erdogan claims in his piece that Turkey became the first country to deploy ground combat troops to fight Daesh and it is true. Yes, Obama sent 50 special forces to Syria before Turkey’s move and promised for more the day after Turkey’s incursion started. But this is not comparable to 3000 Turkish combat troops (excluding the Free Syrian Army Forces). Before Turkey’s incursion, Obama insisted that there would be “no boots on the ground.”
Turkey’s combat strategy was different from the Aleppo or Raqqa operations of Russia and the U.S. Turkey did not engage in heavy bombardment of the city centers and preferred ground combat and door to door cleaning. This strategy had a much greater risk of losing troops but also more secure to save civilian lives.
The operation was successful in cleaning the Syrian towns across the Turkish border from Daesh. Turkey lost over 70 troops and a lot more FSA forces in the battles, but this was mostly because Turkey’s combat strategy was different from the Aleppo or Raqqa operations of Russia and the U.S., respectively. Turkey did not engage in heavy bombardment of the city centers and preferred ground combat and door to door cleaning. This strategy had a much greater risk of losing troops compared to heavy air bombardment but also was the best way to maximize precision in order to save civilian lives. This is the major reason why Turkey lost over 70 troops in the OES while the FSA faced even heavier casualties.
The second point is also very important. Turkey has been into a very extensive rebuilding program in places that it saved from Daesh and the PYD/PKK. The OES area is luckier in this sense as it is the first zone cleaned from terror organizations. Turkey has been trying hard here to rehabilitate the area by building schools, courthouses, police stations, post offices, hospitals, etc. Turkey is even building a university campus in the area. All this effort on the ground is to serve one purpose: there is no solution in Syria until life is back in town. Daesh will not end when the last armed member is shot dead. It will end only when it cannot find replacements.
Turkey is trying hard to rehabilitate the areas cleaned from Daesh by building schools, courthouses, police stations, post offices, hospitals, etc. Turkey is even building a university campus. All this effort is to serve one purpose: there is no solution in Syria until life is back in town.
The latent critique in Erdogan’s op-ed is that countering terrorism is not possible with the military alone. Military defeat is necessary but not sufficient. And Erdogan argues Turkey has both. Erdogan states that Turkey can defeat (and has already defeated) Daesh militarily and, further, it is capable of preventing grievances to take root. In other words, Turkey will leave no trace of Daesh or PKK in Syria, but this will take more than destruction. Construction is the key to this strategy: it is not about killing the bad guys as much as about rebuilding Syria. Hence, the op-ed does not only tell the U.S. audience that Turkey will be a good partner for the U.S., it also claims that Turkey can do it better.