Turkey is preparing another long-awaited invasion of northern Syria. They have previously been hindered by a contingent of US troops, who are in the process of withdrawing from the region. This operation will boost Ankara’s domestic policies – but could also have far-reaching political consequences.
Per a White House press release on October 6th, the United States is about to withdraw its armed forces from northern Syria. Since mid-2014 they have been involved in a global coalition to oust the Islamic State from Syria and Iraq, and have partnered up with the Syrian Kurdish militia Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, to do so.
The US partnership with SDF has primarily consisted of air support, military aid packages, and approximately two thousand American troops on the ground. Ankara – a NATO ally to Washington – has expressed harsh criticism towards this cooperation, as they see SDF as connected to the Kurdish separatist group PKK, mainly active in eastern Turkey. PKK is also considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.
The press release reads that the fight against IS is won and US troops will evacuate the “immediate area”, without specifying exactly where that is. It also confirms that Turkey will soon begin a military operation that the United States will not be a part of.
It then proceeds to criticize Germany, France, and other European nations for not taking back captured IS fighters, and ends with handing over the responsibility of prisoners to Turkey.
Turkish Tanks during the military operation in Afrin / Wikimedia Commons
Why is a military operation in Turkey’s interests?
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been a staunch opponent of Kurdish self-governance in Turkey’s neighboring countries. After Iraqi Kurdistan’s bid for independence Ankara temporarily cut all relations with the region, and has since increased their military presence there.
Turkey, alongside the rebel group Free Syrian Army, FSA, invaded the SDF-held enclave of Afrin in January 2016. Local Kurds claim that Ankara is perpetuating an intentional demographic change.
“When the FSA moved in they started arresting people at random. They call us nonbelievers, kidnap Kurds, and demand ransom from their families. Turkey allows this. Road signs, schools and municipal buildings have all changed names from Kurdish to Arabic and Turkish since they came. Kurds that left are not allowed back and there are only flags of the FSA and Turkey flying over official buildings”, a local woman in Afrin said in an interview with The Perspective earlier this year.
Spyros Sofos, a researcher at Lund University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, sees that Turkey may attempt to do the same in another combat operation.
“An invasion sanctioned by the US will allow Turkey to exercise control of some of the major urban and strategically important areas of northern Syria. They may also repeat the Afrin experiment of establishing structures similar to those of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which has a deep geopolitical dependence on Turkey, and which Ankara enjoys soft power over” he says.
Another reason, according to Sofos, is that President Erdoğan will win back nationalist votes after the incursion. The operation also plays well in Turkey’s ambition of becoming a regional superpower.
Unexpectedly, however, the greatest incentive for the Turkish president may lie in the camps for Islamic State fighters that the US handed over responsibility for.
“Giving Turkey access to the camps provides Erdoğan with unimaginable possibilities to use them as bargaining chips against European governments. Those countries never wanted the fighters to return, and now urgently need to design responses and develop integration processes. It provides enormous blackmailing opportunities for Turkey” Sofos says.
Syrian Democratic Forces along with armored vehicles / Wikimedia Commons
How far into Syria will Turkey go?
It is still uncertain. Erdoğan has long sought the establishment of a safe zone by Syria’s northern border, as he noted in his speech at the UN in September. Distances have varied, but an initial secured zone 30 kilometers into Syria from Turkey was suggested by the president at the UN speech.
On October 5th, a day before the White House press release, Turkish governmental news agency Anadolu Ajansı shared this photo regarding refugee repatriation. It suggests that an operation would primarily target Syria’s border area, but may later stretch down to Raqqa and Deir ez Zor – encompassing almost all populated areas controlled by the Syrian Kurds.
This would fulfill some strategic goals, but the camps for detained IS fighters and supporters are scattered all over northern Syria. One of the largest, housing 30 000 detainees sympathetic to the Islamic State, lies 75 kilometers from the Turkish border. This means that Turkey will need to venture far into Syria to reap those strategic rewards.
For now, however, the invasion seem to be centered on the Syrian towns of Kobane, Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye in Kurdish). According to unconfirmed reports on Twitter, Turkey has deployed artillery units close to those cities and there was a military buildup in the nearby Turkish city of Şanlıurfa.
A Syrian journalist, affiliated with a major international newspaper, confirms those reports.
“I am currently in Qamishlo and there is no activity here, but I when I was in Serekaniye yesterday I saw that the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group for YPG] are digging trenches and preparing for a heavy attack,” he told The Perspective on Monday evening.
Şanlıurfa city center, where Turkish troops now mobilize for an incursion into Syria / Photo: Fredrik Fahlman
Militarily, does the SDF stand a chance?
In the end, no. Turkey is the second largest military force in NATO with a highly technologically advanced army. SDF, on the other hand, consists of around 30 000 fighters with small arms and light armored vehicles. They possess some heavy weaponry, and have released videos destroying Turkish tanks and helicopters, but the number of anti-tank and anti-air weapons at their disposal are unknown and likely few.
Success, however, requires risking Turkish lives, something Erdoğan has been reluctant to do in the past. In the military operation against Afrin, Turkey mainly supplied tanks, air support and special forces, while FSA rebels did the bulk of the ground fighting. This time, however, Ankara has only been able to mobilize 14 000 rebels – half of SDF’s numbers.
“Body bags going home is not something Erdogan wants, although at the right moment he might use them to stir nationalist feeling” Sofos says.
But that may not be necessary. Aras Lindh, analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, has followed the developments closely and sees one key detail.
“Turkey is a much more superior fighting force, and if they militarily can use the airspace, they have an enormous tactical advantage” he says.
The terrain is also to the SDF’s disadvantage. While successful Kurdish insurgencies have been waged in the mountainous areas of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, northern Syria is mostly flat and barren.
According to Lindh, the Kurds’ best bet is to hope that Russia has a plan for them in their geopolitical goals. You can rewrite as “While Turkey will not stand up to the United States, they cannot defy Russia either. While Moscow and Ankara are on the opposing sides in the Syrian war, they have gotten increasingly close to each other in other fields lately, especially weapon sales. Still, Lindh believes negotiations are being held between the Kurds and Russia.
Regardless, the war could also have other consequences.
“In this volatile region, there is a chance that IS sleeper cells will attempt to free captured fighters,” Lindh says.
Tell Abyad, where the first clashes are expected to take place / Google Maps
How will this affect alliances in the Middle East?
Apart from potentially pushing the SDF into Russia’s sphere of influence, a Turkish invasion could create other regional allies. Sofos notes that the northern Syrian Kurds might attempt to strike deals with the Assad regime – but federal Syria could also opt to have it Ankara’s way.
“While not wanting a Turkish presence in his country, Assad has been moving populations in Syria trying to reduce the Sunni element from areas between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast. The Turkish demographic plans are in sync with his designs,” Sofos says.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump sent out a warning to Turkey on Twitter, saying that he would “obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if they do anything “off-limits”. This could also harm an otherwise thawing relationship between Ankara and Washington.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all on opposing sides in Syria, have geopolitical aspirations in the area as well. Sofos predicts that Turkey may use its presence to strike deals and forge circumstantial or long-term alliances. But it is too soon to make accurate predictions on how power politics might change.
“The future will tell how these realignments will play out,” he says.