As the Turkish army and the Syrian militia factions under its command complete preparations for another military campaign in northern Syria, Ankara’s determination to re-escalate the conflict in the area has raised widespread concerns regionally and internationally.
The new Turkish intervention in northern Syria is integrally related to Turkey’s recalcitrant Kurdish question, as Ankara claims that the predominantly Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey has designated a terrorist organisation.
In its last meeting on 26 May, Turkey’s National Security Council determined that further military operations in Syria were necessary for Turkish national security. The aim of the new operations is to create a 30 km buffer zone inside Syria, clear it of Kurdish elements, and then use it for the “voluntary” return of Syrian refugees.
The question of refugees has become one of the hot-button issues that the opposition parties in Turkey have used to strengthen their position against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The popularity ratings of both the party and the president are now at an all-time low, and both are determined to reverse the trend ahead of the elections to be held in the spring of 2023.
Turkish forces have been amassing troops and reinforcing their positions in northeastern Syria especially near YPG locations. Erdogan has said that the Turkish army and military intelligence have planned extensive combat activities along a broad front in order to carve out the 30 km “safety zone,” as he has termed it.
On 27 May, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a NGO, reported that a Turkish military convoy had crossed into Syria in the direction of Manbij with 56 tanks, 11 rocket launchers, and dozens of trucks carrying logistical equipment. It has reported several other large convoys since.
A statement issued by the Turkish National Security Council meeting that Erdogan chaired on 26 May said that the purpose of the military moves was to “neutralize” areas that the Kurds were using to launch attacks against Turkey. It added that Turkish military operations in Syria now and in the future “do not target the sovereignty of neighbouring countries.”
In the same week, Turkish news outlets reported that Turkish-affiliated militias, some of which operate under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA), have been engaged in intensive training. The Turkish national TV channel A Haber aired footage of SNA fighters carrying out simulated combat tasks.
The SNA, previously known as the Turkish-backed Free Syria Army (TFSA) or Free Syria Army (FSA), has sent reinforcements to the fronts in Kobane and Manbij, according to SNA officials in Syria. All army units and factions are in a state of combat readiness, they say.
Islamist militias in Idlib in northern Syria have also been mobilising for the campaign. Foremost among these is the Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). Previously known as the Nusrah Front, it is the largest Turkish-affiliated militia in Syria.
The impending Turkish military operation will have repercussions at several levels. Most immediately, it will precipitate another wave of population displacement from northern Syria.
While the operation is said to target YPG forces, the main victims will be civilians in the predominantly Kurdish regions of northern Syria, especially in the areas around Qamishli, Kobani, and Ein Eissa. Their displacement will further aggravate the turbulence elsewhere in Syria.
The operation will increase tensions between Ankara and the US and NATO. The US backs the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a founding member and which has been the combat force on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in the region.
Washington has cautioned against the new incursion as a result and has warned of a risk to US forces stationed in the area. US President Joe Biden has called on Ankara to abide by the 2019 agreement in which Turkey committed itself not to encroach on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria, adding that keeping the ceasefire lines in place was crucial to Syria’s stability.
The Turkish incursion will also further rile the country’s NATO partners, who have been angered by Erdogan’s refusal to approve Sweden’s and Finland’s applications to join NATO and accuse him of exploiting the membership bids for his own political ends.
Regardless of its aims, the operation will bring about a larger Turkish footprint in northern Syria, signalling to Moscow and Tehran that Ankara will be more of force to be reckoned with in Syria. As both Moscow and Iran are aware, Turkey is taking advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Iran’s preoccupation with negotiations over its nuclear programme and its current domestic crisis in order to impose its will in Syria.
This may affect relationships connected with the Syrian crisis. Russia and Iran will probably work together more closely than they have been in Syria as a result, and there is even a possibility that a Turkish offensive in Syria could reduce tensions between the US and Russia and Iran.
Washington opposes Turkish incursions into northeastern Syria and continues to preserve its relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In a sign of its support for the latter, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland announced on 11 May that Washington planned to issue a licence to ease foreign investment in areas outside of regime control in northeastern Syria without being sanctioned.
“The United States intends in the next few days to issue a general licence to facilitate private economic investment activity in non-regime held areas liberated from IS in Syria,” Reuters cited her as saying during a meeting of the anti-IS coalition in Marrakech.
A major flareup in the conflict in Syria will jeopardise regional and international peacemaking efforts, which have begun to pick up pace. The Arabs have taken steps towards reconciliation with the Syrian regime, while the European powers have sought to mobilise international support for the war-ravaged country.
The peacemaking efforts have gained impetus from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s recent declaration of a general amnesty that aims to free thousands of Syrian political detainees. The renewed Turkish offensive would stymie current peacemaking efforts and hamper initiatives to revive them, especially since military re-escalation in the north of the country will probably spill over into other areas.
Erdogan desperately needs a victory in order to reverse the downward spiral in his party’s and his own personal popularity. If the country’s economic straits, deteriorating standards of living, and rising unemployment are the main reasons for this decline, Syrian refugees in Turkey have also increasingly been turned into scapegoats for the country’s problems.
The mounting popular hostility towards them in Turkey has led the government to U-turn on its longstanding welcome to its Syrian “brothers” and produce a speedy remedy. More importantly in terms of Erdogan’s calculations, a military campaign in Syria will pull the rug out from under the opposition parties and force them to line up behind him in the crucial period leading up to the 2023 Turkish general elections.
This would not be the first time that the militarisation of Turkey’s foreign policy has helped him export domestic problems, throw the opposition into disarray, and score political points at home.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.