Turkey: War games in Syria

While Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish-led offensive into Syria to drive Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) forces away from the border region, appears to have achieved strong initial success, occupying hundreds of square kilometers of Syrian territory, the longer-term objectives and the consequences of Turkey’s incursion remain unclear.

On August 24, armored vehicles and special forces units of the Turkish army, backed by strong air support, crossed into Syria in the Jarablus region to provide firepower for fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Meeting little resistance, in the following days, the Turkish forces and their allies were able to advance up to 30km on a broad front, later linking up with a second force crossing the border further to the west at Al-Rai, creating a still-expanding enclave with a base along the Turkish-Syrian border 98km long.

Even with US-Russian efforts to broker and maintain a ceasefire between the regime and the rebel groups, Turkish forces and their FSA allies have continued to push into Syria, though not at the breakneck pace of the first days of the incursion. With the break in hostilities not covering ISIL or those opposing Turkish-led troops, it was announced in mid-September that some US Special Forces have been consolidating initial gains and building up for a renewed drive on Al-Bab, an ISIL stronghold 30km to the south of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Long-term plan

The immediate result of Operation Euphrates Shield, as the offensive was codenamed, was to cut off all of ISIL’s direct land contact with the outside world, severing supply lines and access to recruits flowing over Turkey’s till-then-porous border. Having achieved this goal, the question arises, how long will Turkish forces continue to stay and how far will they advance?

According to Can Kasapoğlu, a Turkish security expert with the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), how far the penetration into Syria goes will be crucial for the operation’s longer-term objectives of securing and controlling the enclave that has been created. “The key element will be not the length of the strip but the depth of it,” Kasapoğlu told TRENDS. “In my opinion, it is reasonable to go in as deep as Manbij. The terrain is flat and thus depth becomes militarily more significant than length.”

Just as significant, he says, is what follows the offensive. While the operation to date has been a success, consolidation could be far more difficult than what has gone before. “Sweeping a place and holding that territory are very different things,” said Kasapoğlu. “The opposition groups and how they handle the situation on the ground are a risk.”

That risk is encapsulated in the make-up of the FSA, which, despite its name, is not an army but a collection of differing anti-Bashar-Al-Assad groups with little in the way of cohesive command and control structure. With only a loose-knit unity and with many of the fighters not from the newly liberated lands, questions remain over whether the FSA factions can win over the hearts and minds of locals with potentially different allegiances while having few allegiances to each other. While developing strategic depth is important to the longer-term success of Operation Euphrates Shield, Burak Kuntay, assistant professor in international relations at Bahçeşehir University, said deepening the pocket occupied by Turkish and FSA forces could increase tensions in the region and multiply risk factors.

“Having entered Syria, my fear is that if Turkey goes to the south to Manbij and even further south, it will be at odds with the US and Russia as well as Iran,” Kuntay told TRENDS. “On top of this, the further you move to the south, you not only approach ISIL but also the Al-Assad forces and, as you fill in the areas you clear with the FSA or such groups, this will become unacceptable to Russia as well.”

Humanitarian motives

Turkey has also cited humanitarian motives as a driving force in launching its offensive. The drive into Syria may be a step towards a long held Turkish goal i.e. establishing a safe zone across from its borderlands that can be used to house refugee camps now located inside Turkey and to serve as a base of operations for the FSA.

From the time ISIL and other rebel groups closed up on the Turkish border more than two years ago, driving before them waves of refugees, Ankara has tried to generate support for its safe-haven proposal, with little success. Speaking after attending the G-20 Summit in China on September 5, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan said plans for a safe zone had generated little interest at the gathering.

“We raised the issue of the formation of a safe zone in Syria to all our friends at the summit,” Erdoğan told reporters, adding that, while no objections to the proposal had been made, neither had there been any commitment to support it or a renewed Turkish call for a no-fly zone over Syria. “On the contrary, the Syrian crisis has become inextricable, with new countries setting foot on the ground.”

However, Turkey’s policy towards the Kurds of Syria is increasingly being seen as the magnet that has drawn the Turkish army over the border. Rather than ISIL, many analysts suggest that curbing the influence of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People’s Defence Units (YPG), both seen by Ankara as linked to the domestic separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is the main aim of the incursion.

Broader goals

Although Operation Euphrates Shield was launched with the declared objective of clearing ISIL from Turkey’s border region, the offensive is widely seen as having far broader goals. While being among the first to call for the overthrow of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, Ankara has also been vocal in its opposition to the dismemberment of Syria itself, a break-up that could lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state at its back door.

On September 3, as Turkish forces opened their second front at Al-Rai, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim reinforced this position. “We will never allow the formation of an artificial state in the north of Syria,” he told a rally in the predominantly Kurdish city of Dıyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast. “We are there with Euphrates Shield, we are there to protect our border, to provide for our citizens safety of life and property, and to ensure Syria’s integrity.”

This opposition to Kurdish autonomy has hardened still further after YPG forces and allied militias, including local Arab and other groups backed by US air power, captured the town of Manbij on August, erasing a long-drawn red line by the Erdoğan government that Kurdish troops should not cross the Euphrates.

While Ankara had grudgingly agreed not to oppose the drive on Manbij – 40km north of the Turkish border – in the name of combating ISIL, it had sought and been given a commitment by the US that the YPG would withdraw back across the Euphrates once the town had fallen. Though YPG leaders have said their forces have moved back from areas where Turkish troops are operating, there have been clashes between the two sides. The enclave created by Turkey and its FSA allies has effectively driven a 90km wedge between the two main areas under PYD control along the Syrian side of the border.

Though both are unwilling to admit it in public, Turkish targeting of YPG positions and pressure on the PYD has also threatened to drive a wedge between Ankara and Washington. The US views the Kurds as its most useful ally on the ground in Syria, with the YPG, backed by US special force advisors and air power, having recaptured large swathes of territory from ISIL over the past year. These victories have to be set off against what Ankara sees as the increasing threat posed by the expansion of Kurdish control along its border -regions. Kuntay said the rise of the PYD was key in dragging Turkey directly into the Syrian conflict in order to halt Syrian Kurdish support for the PKK.

“Turkey was forced to stage a cross-border operation that it did not want,” explained Kuntay. “We had many red lines: one was Al-Assad, but the most important ones of all, with respect to our security, are the PYD and the YPG.”

Syrian viewpoint

From the Syrian side of the border, the view is somewhat different, according to Idriss Nassan, a PYD official formerly in charge of foreign relations, based in the town of Korbani. Power struggles being played out on the battlefields of Syria have only intensified since Turkey’s intervention, he said.

“Everyone including Turkey wants a piece of the cake,” Nassan told TRENDS. “The US and Russia are after their own interests as well. In fact, no one really cares about the needs on the ground.”

As a result of the conflicting interests, Nassan said Turkey’s offensive may have restrictions imposed on it from elsewhere. “I believe the big players will keep this Turkey-backed operation limited and only to the extent that it seals and blocks supplies to ISIL,” he said.

Despite Nassan’s belief, it is uncertain how long Turkish forces will maintain a presence in the enclave. Turkey still has bases inside northern Iraq, established to counter the PKK’s activities in the region and now used to train local anti-ISIL militias. Turkish presence in Iraq – first established in the mid-1990s – remains, even though the central government in Baghdad last December demanded that all of Ankara’s troops be withdrawn, a demand Turkey sidestepped by re-deploying some men and armor further away from Mosul, where most of its forces were concentrated.

There are concerns that Ankara may look to set up a similar chain of posts inside Syria, ostensibly to combat any return of ISIL militants, but also to prevent any further consolidation by Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border.

These concerns have promoted a number of governments to call on Ankara to set exact parameters to its operation, including a time frame for withdrawal. Not surprisingly, these calls were led by Syria itself, with Damascus describing the Turkish incursion as a flagrant breach of its territorial integrity.

Key Syrian ally Iran has also added its voice to the chorus. On September 2, Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Turkey should “swiftly end the military operations in Syria”. While combating terrorism was important, the ministry’s spokesman Bahram Qassemi said: “This issue cannot and should not be used as a justification for violating the territorial integrity of another country by conducting military operations against that country”.

The duration of Turkish troop deployment inside Syria, along with the FSA’s ability to hold what it has occupied and how the various local and international powers will balance their own objectives with operational realities on the ground are just some of the uncertainties surrounding the recent developments in the country, with answers unlikely to reveal themselves soon.

For those who hold concerns over whether Ankara is looking to establish a long term presence inside Syria, as it has done in Iraq, perhaps there is an omen in the date that Operation Euphrates Shield was launched. August 24 was the 500th anniversary of Ottoman Sultan Selim I entering Aleppo at the head of an 80,000-strong army, leading to an occupation of more than 400 years.