Allies fear cost of Turkey’s instability

It takes 15 minutes for warplanes to reach their targets in Syria from Turkey’s Incirlik air base © AP

Southern Turkey’s Incirlik air base was shut down for only a few hours as the plotters seeking to topple Recep Tayyip Erdogan were hunted, but it was long enough to illustrate the effect Turkey’s instability can have beyond its borders.

The US-led international coalition against Isis uses Incirlik to bomb territory under the jihadi forces’ control in northern and eastern Syria. And in the few hours that western fighter jets were grounded, Isis launched a wave of suicide attacks against the US-supported Kurdish militia.

The attacks on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) left dozens dead, according to people familiar with the battle.

“The YPG essentially lost its air force,” says a regional security official, who asked not to be named. “That could be catastrophic if it happened repeatedly.”

Turkey is a crucial actor in the Middle East, and its allies are concerned that as the country grapples with instability and shifts its focus to domestic affairs, the consequences for the region could be unpredictable and, for its allies, potentially dire.

Not only has Turkey, a Nato member, opened its air base to its western partners, it has also been a steadfast supporter of Syrian rebels, who use the shared 800km border as a logistical lifeline. Ankara has insisted on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s removal.

Syrian rebels said last week they noticed a drift in Ankara’s attention. They said Turkey was inactive as rebels struggled against a tightening siege by the Assad regime on Aleppo, the opposition’s last big urban stronghold. Aleppo’s fate could be critical to the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

“Usually, the Turks would be checking in a lot, meeting with commanders and making sure everyone is doing their jobs and sticking to the plan,” says a rebel leader from a US-backed group. “The Turks could get control of this situation — and now, they’re absent.”

Ankara’s purge against those suspected of involvement in the failed coup has seen more than 6,000 military personnel and 9,000 interior ministry employees dismissed, suspended or detained.

The commander in charge of Incirlik and the head of the military division responsible for Syria and Iraq are among more than 100 generals detained.

US air strikes have proved crucial in the battle against Isis © Reuters

Aaron Stein, an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, says the bureaucratic mess of purging thousands from Turkey’s security and military forces could create co-ordination problems with Nato allies as well.

“Right now there is confusion in western capitals whether their counterparts still have their jobs,” says Mr Stein. “The western security folks are picking up the phone trying to call.”

Another worry is the war of words over Mr Erdogan’s demand that Washington extradite Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric who Ankara blames for instigating the coup attempt.

“If this American-Turkish struggle worsens … we could see a period of chaos much bigger than anything we’ve seen yet,” says a Syrian rebel leader, who fears that the two sides could work against each other through their Syrian proxies.

Washington insists that legal procedures have to be followed and evidence presented before Mr Gulen, who has denied any role in the coup attempt, can be extradited.

President Barack Obama on Friday felt the need to reiterate that the US had no knowledge or involvement in the failed coup attempt, highlighting the strained relationship between Ankara and Washington.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst at the Washington Institute, said handling of the Gulen case could have a fundamental effect on US relations.

“If Erdogan is not satisfied that the US government is taking this seriously, he might pack up and go with Russia,” says Mr Cagaptay.

But Incirlik is not irreplaceable, argues military analyst Michael O’Hanlon, who points out that there are bases in the Gulf that US forces can use, less than an hours’ flight from most Isis targets.

Washington’s Syria partners, however, say that is one hour too long. It takes 15 minutes to reach targets from Incirlik, and that is sometimes not quick enough to halt a suicide bomber driving straight towards them.

Turkey’s relations with the anti-Isis coalition could also worsen if it takes a more aggressive approach towards its Kurdish rivals, particularly the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group seeking greater Kurdish autonomy that has been at war with Turkey for decades.

Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish analyst close to the PKK, says the YPG could be an easier target for Turkey because Syria’s Kurdish militia is not hiding out in mountains, but operating openly in the largely semi-autonomous enclave it has carved out just south of Turkey’s border.

Targeting the YPG could unify Turkish rivals, he says: “The PKK is now taking measures because Erdogan could direct the army to attack [YPG] so the nationalists in the army and society will support him.”

Dozens of YPG fighters were killed in the few hours that Incirlik air base was closed during the coup attempt © AFP

Amid the confusion, some of Mr Erdogan’s rivals — namely those backing Mr Assad — seemed almost gleeful that one of the biggest regional actors in Syria’s civil war could be hamstrung by its own internal strife.

A diplomat close to Russia said Mr Assad, who enjoys Moscow’s backing, was still “waiting and watching” to see whether he could use Turkey’s instability to push Ankara to rush and make a deal to end the Syrian conflict at the co of its long-time rebel partners.

“They [Ankara] are going to be too caught up in their own affairs to worry much about the rest of the region,” he says. “ It’s hard to pretend I’m not happy about that.”

Additional reporting by Nazih Ossieran

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