Erdogan’s high-risk gambit in northern Syria
Turkiye may be just a few days away from launching one of the biggest ground offensives into northern Syria since it first ventured into its war-torn neighbor in 2016. On Saturday night, its air force struck Kurdish targets it suspected of belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, People’s Defense Units and Union of Communities in Kurdistan. The attacks were confirmed by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as the Turkish Defense Ministry. Among the casualties were Syrian regime soldiers. Parts of Syria’s long northern and eastern borders are under regime control.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkiye’s military operation in northern Syria and Iraq, dubbed “Operation Claw-Sword,” was not limited to just an air campaign, with discussions to be held on the involvement of ground forces. Erdogan has been threatening such a land intervention since June, but previously had to step back under US pressure. Washington described the situation in Syria’s north as “difficult,” while the self-declared Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria warned of a long war and called for unity.
Turkiye’s latest strikes, which included targets in northern Iraq, came a week after a deadly terrorist explosion in Istanbul was blamed on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is known as the PKK. Ankara is yet to provide hard evidence of that involvement. But it seems the Istanbul attack gave Erdogan the excuse to revive his plans to send more troops into northern Syria to create a buffer zone and strike Kurdish militias. By doing so, he risks clashing with the Americans, who have ground troops in the oil-rich regions of eastern Syria, along with their Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces. More importantly, the Turkish president may destroy efforts to reconcile with the Assad regime.
In September, various media sources reported that a series of meetings had taken place between Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs in Damascus. The meetings are said to have taken place at the urging of the Russians, whose attention is now focused on their military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow wanted its two allies to reach an agreement that would bolster Russia’s gains in Syria, while accelerating a political solution in the country.
Erdogan had hinted he was not discounting meeting with Bashar Assad and he last week said he would seek to normalize ties with Syria and Egypt following next June’s key elections in Turkiye.
The Turkish president kept his territorial ambitions alive and now he sees an opportunity to carry them out.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has become a game-changer for Syria and its decade-long crisis. The regime relied on Russia’s military intervention in 2015 to tip the balance in its favor as it battled rebel groups. At one point, with the US entrenched in the oil-rich Kurdish east and Turkiye in control of the north, including the Idlib enclave, a stalemate settled in and the regime seemed content with keeping things as they were. But the tense equilibrium is changing, with Russia directing its attention to its protracted war in Ukraine.
The same can be said of Assad’s Iranian backers. The Iranian uprising, which erupted more than two months ago, will not subside anytime soon and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is now completely focused on crushing what is becoming a serious threat to the regime.
Erdogan has played his cards well since the Russians staggered into Ukraine. He has kept in close touch with a beleaguered Vladmir Putin while offering himself as an honest broker between the West and Russia. But he kept his territorial ambitions in northern Syria alive and now he sees an opportunity to carry them out. Whether or not he too will end up overreaching, as Putin did in Ukraine, remains to be seen. To attempt to destroy the PKK and other Kurdish groups in one speedy ground operation is a high-risk gambit.
President Assad cannot afford to believe that the status quo is sustainable. It is not. Before Russian forces marched into Ukraine, he had the luxury of derailing any political initiative aimed at forcing him to cough up concessions to his political foes that would weaken his grip on power or even set a deadline to end his iron-fist rule. Now, however, his Russian backers are engaged elsewhere, while Iran’s presence in Syria has become a liability, with Israel having a free hand in striking targets all over the country. His economy is in tatters and Turkiye is solidifying its role as a major player in his country’s future.
Meanwhile, it is not yet clear what Washington’s response would be if Turkiye launched a ground offensive across the Syrian border and into areas where its own troops are lodged. Erdogan’s is a high-stake game, but the onus is on Syria’s president to take the initiative and resume talks with the Kurds, as well as with his political opponents. With Assad’s Russian backing in peril, maybe the time has come for him to square the circle and put something on the table for a change.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.