Turkey-backed Syrian fighters man positions on the outskirts of the town of Kuljibrin, Syria, Friday (photo: AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan again reiterated his country’s determination to create a 30 km “safe zone” in northern Syria on 3 December, ostensibly to prevent terrorists from infiltrating Turkey and repatriate Syrian refugees.
Turkey has unleashed barrages of airstrikes against northeastern Syria in recent weeks in retaliation for the bomb attack that took place in Istanbul on 13 November, which it blames on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) in Syria, which Turkey claims is a branch of the PKK.
Erdogan said that the ground incursion was “immanent” as Turkish forces amassed along the border with Syria. But regional and international stakeholders in Syria are deeply concerned by the planned ground offensive targeting the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Washington has cautioned Ankara against proceeding, saying the operation would jeopardise the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group. Moscow has urged restraint and proposed an arrangement whereby Syrian regime forces would take the place of the SDF along the Syrian border with Turkey. Tehran has also objected to the looming Turkish incursion, which it said would jeopardise security in Syria and the region.
Turkey has shrugged off such concerns, however, stating that it does not need to ask permission to defend its national security. Regardless of its motives, it considers the time propitious for its military escalation against northern Syria. Moscow is preoccupied with its operation in Ukraine, and Ankara is gambling that its improved relations with the Arab countries opposed to the Turkish involvement in Syria will minimise pressures from the Gulf.
It might also point to the Iranian military operations in northern Iraq as a way of justifying its intervention in northern Syria as well as in northern Iraq.
But Turkey may not be able to remain as aloof to criticism as it wishes, especially given the increasingly tough stances from both Moscow and Washington. The former has suspended joint patrols with Turkish forces in Syria and moved Russian reinforcements into an area in northern Syria controlled by Kurdish fighters and Syrian government troops.
In Washington, the US Congress has stressed that the Kurds in northern Syria are a strategic ally of the US. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin telephoned Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar last week to express the “strong opposition” of the US to Turkey’s renewed military offensive against northern Syria.
One alternative Turkey might pursue is to carry out airstrikes against SDF locations in northern Syria and PKK bases and training camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Such strikes were also a facet of the “Claw and Sword” operation launched by the Turkish Ministry of Defence on 20 November.
Another alternative could be to have Turkish-backed militia factions in northern Syria mount attacks against the SDF while providing them with Turkish air cover. This would minimise the losses Turkey would sustain through a direct engagement with its adversaries.
Erdogan may still be tempted to defy the international and regional criticisms and reinforce the Turkish presence on the ground in both Syria and Iraq, while continuing efforts to disrupt communications and destroy Kurdish pockets in Syria and Iraq.
In addition to the Russian preoccupation with Ukraine and the Iranian bombardment of Iraqi Kurdistan, he might feel encouraged to press ahead with his plans by Moscow’s and Tehran’s relative silence on the Turkish airstrikes in the region, as well as by the end of the cooperation between the SDF and the International Coalition, especially if a ground offensive serves to drive a deeper wedge between the two sides.
But what most increases the odds of a Turkish ground offensive despite the international criticisms is the lure of a military victory that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey could claim ahead of next year’s general elections.
In addition to shoring up its Islamist electoral base, a foreign success of this type could distract the Turkish public from the economic straits and deteriorating living standards that have driven the decline in the popularity of both the AKP and the president.
However, major ground offensives are very costly. Another one – the seventh major incursion since Turkey invaded and occupied a large swathe of territory in northwestern Syria in 2016 – would further drain Turkish finances at a time when the country’s economy is still reeling from the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The Turkish lira is at its lowest point in 20 years while economic growth remains sluggish, including in the tourism sector. The country’s opposition parties have also taken the opportunity to remind Turkish voters of the boomerang effects of the AKP’s military interventions in Middle Eastern conflicts.
It is difficult to assess whether such concerns will persuade Erdogan to reassess the pros and cons of a full-scale operation that in addition to the economic attrition could cause further social problems, primarily to the detriment of Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. Some observers have also suggested that rather than curbing Kurdish militants, an all-out offensive might prompt the Turkish-based PKK to carry out operations from inside Turkey.
If this does in fact take place, then pressing ahead with the operation despite international cautions and the advice of the domestic opposition parties will have backfired in more ways than one.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.