Less than a week ago, Turkish forces marched across the Syrian-Turkish border, opening a new phase in the Syrian civil war. The Turks’ combined assault with Syrian rebels succeeded in capturing the city of Jarabulus, one of ISIS’ last strongholds near the Turkish border.
The conflict, which started back in 2011, grew to have four major groups struggling against one another for power: the original Baathist Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian rebels, Kurdish autonomous forces, and the Islamic State of ISIS. These four groups have a mutual distrust for each other and have rendered Syria a destitute and divided country, currently defined by four shifting zones of control under the four powers.
Although a host of foreign powers have involved themselves in the conflict to varying degrees (U.S., Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia), none of them have committed enough force to actually creating a definitive settlement out of the chaos in Syria. In addition, American or Russian action would almost certainly be seen as outside interference. Iran is the lone Shiite Islamic country in the Middle East, and any strong action by the Iranians would be viewed with suspicion by mostly Sunni Syrians, not to mention its Sunni neighbors. Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime with close ties to the U.S., which also does not make it an ideal candidate for settling the conflict. In addition, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia share a border with Syria, making provisioning of troops and direct access to Syria more difficult.
Turkey does not suffer from these problems. Turkey is a Sunni Middle Eastern country that shares a border with Syria. Although Turkey has been a U.S. ally for decades, tensions have emerged in recent history under current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, Turks are ethnically different from the Arabs that populate Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East. There also could be memories of former Turkish domination of the Arab-populated Middle East under the Ottoman Empire only a century ago.
For military and stability reasons, however, Turkey is the prime candidate to do something the situation in Syria. Turkey has the overall most powerful military in the Middle East. Most countries in the Middle East loath the second most powerful, Israel, and several do not even recognize Israel as a country. Egypt continues to struggle with its own problems in the wake of Arab Spring, and after Iran and Saudi Arabia the Turkish military dwarfs the rest of the armies in the Middle East.
The Turkish military is also well-supported financially and by compulsory military service for Turkish males. It is relatively disciplined and equipped with ample numbers of tanks and aircraft, and despite the recent dismissal of several military higher-ups after the attempted coup against Erdoğan in July, the army still remains a powerful force. Turkish forces also have military experience, having fought Kurds in the east of their own country since the 1980s.
With the recent Turkish incursion into Syria, it shows that Turkey is willing to play a larger role in the conflict. The Turkish government specifically cited the recent attack by ISIS on Turkish territory along the Turkish-Syrian border and the necessity of removing ISIS from the Syrian-Turkish border.
These attacks also forced Turkey to confront ISIS as an enemy. Perhaps the biggest problem with Turkey potentially stopping ISIS will be that it considers the Kurdish forces in Syrian to be principal Turkish enemy, not ISIS. This is due to the Turkish government fearing that the creation of a Kurdish autonomous state in Syria, or for that matter Iraq, could incite rebellion against its own sizable Kurdish population, resulting in domestic bloodshed and potential loss of eastern territories.
Recent Turkish negotiations with Russia, the prime foreign backer of Syrian President al-Assad, Turkish coordination with the Syrian rebels, and the presence of American Vice President Joe Biden in the Turkish capital of Ankara do suggest that Turkey is looking towards a larger picture in Syria. Only time will tell whether Turkey will play a definitive role in any future peace in Syria or the destruction of ISIS, but it is certainly the leading candidate to do so.