Challenges Ahead of Turkey’s Possible Military Action in Northern Syria
Story Code : 1026288
According to Turkey's Defense Ministry, fighter jets carried out attacks on the bases of the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People's Defense Units (YPG) in the city of Kobani in northern Syria, killing dozens of militants and wounding others. The ministry said that this air assault was carried out in accordance with the right for self-defense. This ministry also published pictures of its fighters attacking Syrian territory, saying on Twitter: "The time of reckoning has come." In October 2019, under the pretext of countering the threats posed by terrorist groups, Turkey brought Kobani under its aircraft and artillery fire for two weeks, during which hundreds of people were killed and wounded.
Having in mind that the Turkish officials said that the air raids are just the beginning and massive operations are scheduled in Syria, experts do not rule out a new ground incursion into Syria. Military operations in Syria mark a dream for the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has never removed them from the table since the eruption of the Syrian home conflict.
Since 2013, in the midst of the Syrian crisis and under the ruse of terrorist threats to Turkey's territory by Syrian-based terrorist groups, Erdogan demanded establishment of a ‘safe zone’ with a range of 30 kilometers in the northern regions of Syria to extend the security of his country's borders deep into Syria, but this plan, in addition to Russia, was also opposed by the US and the Europeans. Since then, Erdogan has been trying to implement this plan and watching for an opportunity to do so.
The president and other Turkish officials in July repeatedly talked about plans for an operation in Syria's north “soon” for the confrontation of alleged Kurdish terrorist groups. Although everyone was waiting for the new round of operations in Syria, so far such a plan has not been implemented and this time Erdogan is likely to implement his unfinished project.
Despite the fact that since a couple of months ago, Turkish administration made efforts towards normalization with the Syrian government and to show its good will even closed down the offices of the Syrian opposition groups on Turkey's soil, Erdogan may prefer military action on Syria over normalization if faced with a dilemma. In this case, too, he has to take all considerations.
Erdogan seeking to silence the opposition
Under opposition pressures and finding opposition power gain a threat to his authority, Erdogan plans to advertise himself as a patriotic leader ready to do anything to defend his people several months to the presidential and parliamentary elections. Erdogan intends to use military operations to broaden the gaps among his rivals and to divert the public attention from economic problems and unbridled inflation to the war on terrorism. In the past years, Erdogan has shown that he is unwilling to hand over the post to his rivals and will resort to any tactic in order to stay in power.
The Turkish president, indeed, is exploiting a wave of nationalism and Istanbul blast granted him the best chance to make his way to victory in June 2023 elections. In a strong-toned speech to the nation, Erdogan labeled “terrorists” all of those criticizing the attacks on the PKK and other Kurdish groups, a tactic he used to take from the rivals the dare to flex their muscles against him. By this speech, he squeezed the home opposition, and if they speak against the ongoing operation in Syria, he has the ability to provoke the public opinion against them.
Challenges to the operations
Although Turkey has not started the ground operation in Syria, the evidence suggests that this operation may start soon, but the Turkish leaders have challenges ahead, making the incursion difficult for them.
The first challenge is the sharp reaction from Iran and Russia, both guarantors of the Astana peace process and agreements. Moscow and Tehran announced their opposition to any military action in Syria at the tripartite meeting in Tehran held in July this year, and one of the main reasons for Turkey's temporary refraining from the start of ground operation in northern Syria is the resolute stance of the two countries. They declared such tension-causing measures a red line to them.
Russia and Iran, both staunch allies of Syria, argue that re-escalation of tensions in Syria would provide opportunity for re-emergence of terrorist organizations. This issue can cause a new crisis to the region at a time the world is preoccupied with Ukraine conflict.
Perhaps, Erdogan thinks that Russia, due its involvement in Ukraine war and especially after Russian retreat from the important city of Kherson, is in a weak position, but this thought is wrong as Moscow has several times said that the war in Ukraine would not distract it from Syria. Actually, the reactions to the Israeli attacks on Syrian positions in recent months are expressive of this fact. Russia even held air drills with Syria after its Ukraine campaign and expanded the range of its airstrikes on Idlib-based terrorists in a warning to the rivals that Moscow has not abandoned Syria case. Therefore, the Turkish officials should take into account a sharp reaction from the Russians if Ankara decided to launch a ground operation.
Although some experts describe the simultaneous operations of Turkey and Iran against the positions of Kurdish terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria as parallel to each other, Tehran considers any Turkish invasion of Syria to be a violation of the Astana agreements, and if a new round of operations begins, it will show a strong reaction.
Finding Ukraine crisis the best opportunity to complete its unfinished project in Syria, Turkey is trying to capitalize on the European and American preoccupation with Ukraine crisis. Turkey believes that the Europeans are currently dealing with many crises, and are so caught up in the Ukraine crisis that they cannot focus on Turkish operations. On the other hand, NATO needs Turkey's approval for the membership of Finland and Sweden as bidders for membership in the Western military bloc, and in a way, the West is under Ankara's clout in this case. Erdogan has repeatedly said that Finland and Sweden host the PKK leaders and activities and support terrorists, and made it clear that he will not agree to their request to join NATO unless the two countries close down the offices of these terrorist groups on their soil. Therefore, the terrorist explosion in Istanbul could be Erdogan's trump card to wrest concessions from Finland and Sweden and force them to end support to the Kurdish leaders.
Another point is that the Europeans also need Turkey's help in securing their energy and recently agreements have been made between Erdogan and the Russian officials for gas supplies for transit to Europe. Very likely, the Europeans will try as much as possible not to do anything that angers Ankara, and Erdogan knows this European weak spot.
While the Europeans can turn a blind eye to the Turkish operation due to their energy needs to Ankara, the US is strongly opposed to any anti-Kurdish campaign. Washington, since 2014 having been supporting the Syrian Kurds and training them to use them as its infantry, finds Turkey's incursion running counter to its programs. It has so far opposed establishing Turkish-demanded safe zone in northern Syria.
Although the Arab world at the beginning of crisis stood against Damascus and played in the Western-Israeli game, in recent years many Arab states have changed their stances and moved to normalization with the Syrian government. Therefore, with the start of the Turkish operation, Arab League voice is likely to rise in opposition, as it did when in 2019, Turkey assaulted Kobani.
In addition to the global reactions, the Syrian government is the biggest obstacle ahead of Erdogan's warmongering. Syrian officials several times described possible Turkish action in the north a “play with fire” that can bring “grave” consequences to Ankara. Another point worthy of consideration is that the Syrian armed forces are now way stronger than in 2011, the year the crisis erupted, and can push back against Turkish incursion. Amid the Turkish threats of military action, the Syrian army took a war formation in northern regions to show its readiness for any scenario. Damascus even established contacts with Kurdish leaders to form a united front with them to eliminate the common threat.
Considering all these challenges, we can conclude that the Turkish military is incapable of initiating a military operation due to internal and international obstacles. If it does, all Erdogan's moves for rapprochement with Syria, the Arab world, and Russia will be of no avail. On the other hand, Ankara needs green light from the West for the 30-kilometer buffer zone in the north and cannot do it alone, and now that Ankara's Western allies are rising in its face, the project would be too high-risk to implement. Additionally, a new military operation, whose end is unclear, can impose heavy costs on Erdogan's administration, and while the economy is struggling with a crisis, prolonged military action can prove detrimental to Erdogan in the election.