There are no easy options for anyone in northern Syria
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement of increased Turkish military intervention in Syria will come as no surprise to some. However, like the eight-year Syrian civil war itself, the circumstances behind Turkey’s decision are complex and deeply interwoven, and it is difficult to pinpoint whether the aims of Ankara’s escalating involvement primarily reflect legitimate concerns or ulterior motives.
One of the legitimate concerns involves Turkey’s 30-year struggle with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought to secure Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. In the eyes of the Turkish government, military and security apparatus, the PKK and its Syrian offshoot the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are terrorist groups.
Since 1974, the PKK has either instigated, claimed responsibility for or been indirectly involved in numerous attacks targeting Turkish civilian, military, police, government and diplomatic sites. With many lives lost and more injured as a result, it is understandable that Turkey would maintain a hard-line stance against insurgency or violent separatist movements such as the PKK. Acceding to separatist demands would destabilize Turkey and Ankara’s failure to maintain territorial integrity would be a matter of grave concern to its NATO allies.
Civil war broke out in Syria In March 2011 and this, together with the emergence of Daesh in Iraq, created the sort of chaos necessary for separatist movements such as the PKK to thrive. The absence of government-controlled, highly coordinated forces leaves a vacuum in which separatist and terrorist groups can arm themselves and gain control of vast resources. Doing so also affords such groups a chance to aggressively pursue other aims. In the case of the PKK and other Kurdish militias, this would be the long-sought dream of an independent Kurdistan, formed from parts of Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish territory.
But at the same time, to the Kurds the rise of Daesh is an existential threat far greater than their protracted battles in pursuit of autonomy or independence. As a result, between 2013 and 2018 Kurdish militias proved instrumental in the fight to halt the expansion of Daesh and, ultimately, in routing the terrorist group from its territories and strongholds in Iraq and parts of Syria. For a brief moment, the coalition of anti-Daesh forces could afford to enjoy a respite. When President Trump recently announced his plans for a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Syria, the YPG and groups under its control, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, held a vast amount of territory, from Manbij near the Turkish border through Deir Ezzor to parts of northern Iraq.
To the Turkish authorities, the heavily armed and experienced Kurdish forces in control of vast territories near its borders pose a grave threat, given their ties to the PKK. In addition, these same Kurdish militias proved to be a formidable and dependable fighting force while helping the US rid the region of Daesh. With the US seemingly finished with Syria, whether as a result of war-weariness or to re-position its forces to contain Iran, Turkey finds itself in a unique position.
To the Turkish authorities, the heavily armed and experienced Kurdish forces in control of vast territories near its borders pose a grave threat, given their ties to the PKK.
Ankara called for an end to the Assad regime and supported those Syrian rebels with similar goals, and even actively participated in the civil war with its own forces. Initially, the involvement was restricted to establishing a buffer zone between its border and the various factions vying for control of Syrian territory. However, this mission has shifted to waging war against Kurdish forces in Syria as Turkey mounts its own anti-terrorism efforts, not against Daesh but against groups allegedly backed by the PKK, its sworn enemy. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, as the Kurdish forces have proved themselves to be valuable allies in antiterrorism operations not only in Syria but in Iraq.
Such an engagement by Turkey would have to be limited because any attempt to reclaim territories vacated by retreating Kurdish forces would only add to the bloodshed and make an already complex situation even more so.
Also, it is highly doubtful whether the Turkish military could deploy across northern Syria on a sufficient scale to maintain stability and ward off incursions by pro-Assad forces. In addition, there are disparate militias and remnants of Daesh scattered across Syria that could also pose a threat to any Turkish attempt to take control of territories occupied by Kurdish forces.
Nonetheless, there is a clear benefit to Turkey of limiting the amount of territory, and the influence, held by Kurdish forces. Should the civil war draw to a close and talks about the future begin in earnest through diplomatic channels, it is highly likely that Kurdish claims will carry a lot of weight at the negotiating table.
If the PKK were truly as involved in the war as Ankara alleges, one of those claims would be for greater Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, right next to the border with Turkey. To the Turks, that conversation is a non-starter, and has been for more than 30 years, to the point where they are ready and willing to deploy troops to eliminate the possibility.
There are no easy options and it is unclear how President Erdogan will want to proceed with this bold decision to place even more Turkish forces on Syrian soil. There is already a question of whether such a decision would constitute an infringement of Syria’s sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s desire for an end to the Assad regime has not changed. Should Turkey succeed in quelling the Kurdish “threat,” a resurgent pro-Assad coalition, backed by Russia and Iran, would be staunchly opposed to this Turkish incursion. Should Turkish forces gain control of more territory beyond an extended buffer zone, Ankara could find itself embroiled in a seemingly endless conflict that turns out to be far more dangerous than any separatist violence instigated by the PKK.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell