Turkish officials continue to repeat their warning that a military operation in northern Syria may be imminent, blaming both Washington and Moscow for not fulfilling their promises. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asserted that Turkey will pursue a “much more different way” in its struggle with US-backed Kurdish militias, intensifying criticism of the United States following the killings of Turkish police by the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Although Turkey’s clashes with YPG have been regular and expected low-intensity incidents, increasing attacks by the organization from Russian-controlled zones disturb Ankara. More importantly, after 18 months of relative calm, Russian and Syrian regime forces have escalated their military offensive in Idlib in northwestern Syria, hence raising Turkey’s concerns about potentially massive refugee flows.
Carl von Clausewitz’s famous aphorism, “War is simply the continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means,” comes to mind with the Syrian puzzle in which Ankara perceives itself as cornered and forced to choose from a number of bad options. A frustrated Erdoğan government seeks favors from both Washington and Moscow, and escalation of violence is a means to gain certain prizes from either side. At a minimum, Turkey reasons, a military incursion has a potential to delay US-Russian rapprochement over Syrian Kurdish autonomy. Ankara’s bold moves, however, may put Turkish soldiers at more risk since the government’s strategy may backfire and result in unintended outcomes.
A frustrated Erdoğan government seeks favors from both Washington and Moscow, and escalation of violence is a means to gain certain prizes from either side.
Torn between Washington and Moscow
Ankara’s balancing act between Washington and Moscow is mind-boggling. Consider Erdoğan’s recent diplomatic visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting that was imbued with high hopes but ended up with expressions of frustration. Erdoğan not only criticized the White House but also attacked Brett McGurk, the National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, for “supporting terrorism” and acting like “a director for the PKK and the YPG.” Immediately requesting a meeting with Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan reaffirmed his plans to deepen military cooperation with Russia, including the purchase of a second batch of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. Before the Erdoğan-Putin meeting in Sochi, however, Russia increased its heavy bombing in Idlib, which triggered more Turkish military reinforcements to the front lines. Following the Sochi summit, Erdoğan praised his country’s relations with Russia. At the same time, he also turned to Washington with a new request: 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for the country’s existing warplanes. Turkey’s request will likely get support from the US government and defense industry. Such a transactional bid was perceived as a smart step for Erdoğan, who may test the Biden Administration’s willingness to ease the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against Turkey, which was imposed due to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile systems. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden sent a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi notifying her of his intention to extend the national emergency regarding relations with Syria, a move that Turkey heavily criticized. The letter noted that Turkish military offensives undermine peace and stability in the region, posing “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Ankara is fearful of the Biden Administration’s efforts to reach a consensus with Russia over Syria; this is a trend that encourages Damascus and the Syrian Kurds to get closer in a joint effort to confront the Turkish occupation.
Hard necessities of realpolitik steer Ankara’s balancing efforts between Washington and Moscow. With the lack of a coherent policy, Ankara witnesses shrinking options and declining fortunes in Syria. Russian airstrikes and the regime advancement in Idlib have become a constant reminder for Erdoğan’s government that the de facto Turkish de-escalation zones may not be sustainable in the long-term. Ankara is fearful of the Biden Administration’s efforts to reach a consensus with Russia over Syria; this is a trend that encourages Damascus and the Syrian Kurds to get closer in a joint effort to confront the Turkish occupation.
Turkey’s Predicament in Syria
With 15,000 Turkish troops in scores of military outposts in Syria, Ankara aims to deter the Syrian regime’s attacks on Idlib, the final rebel stronghold and refuge for 3.4 million people. Without air force cover, however, the Turkish outposts remain vulnerable—as reflected in the February 2020 air strikes that killed 34 soldiers, marking the deadliest attack on Turkish forces in the Syrian civil war. The escalation of violence in Idlib has become a staple agenda item in the Erdoğan-Putin dialogues during the past few years. The Syrian regime’s major offensive in 2019 displaced some 1.4 million people and the ensuing Turkey-Russia agreements have not resolved the main issues of contention. Russia often makes statements about Turkey’s failure to keep its promise to clear “terrorist” elements in Idlib and to open the M4 Latakia-Aleppo Highway that is critical for Syria’s economy. More importantly, Moscow frequently proves its dominance, controlling the pace of military escalation in the region. As an ominous sign of rising frustration, five Turkish generals involved in Syria-related missions asked to resign; these include a head of a command center in charge of all Turkish operations in Syria.
The clock is ticking against Turkish interests. The renewed US-Russia dialogue is likely to usher in serious negotiations between the Assad regime and Syrian Kurds.
The clock is ticking against Turkish interests. The renewed US-Russia dialogue is likely to usher in serious negotiations between the Assad regime and Syrian Kurds. The catastrophic nature of the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan sparked Kurdish fears of a similar scenario in Syria. The United States is providing assurances to the Kurds and aims to use its leverage in negotiating with Moscow for a long-term stabilization, as evidenced by the Biden Administration’s relaxation of Caesar Act sanctions on Syria: Washington has overlooked the flow of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon via Syria as well as Iranian oil tankers crossing to Tartous. If the Assad regime accepts the granting of some form of autonomy for the Kurds under one united flag of Syria, Washington may consider financial incentives to normalize its relations with the regime.
A Bid for Permanent Settlements
Turkey’s current consideration of another military operation is an outcome of a “self-help” policy in crafting safe zones under Turkish occupation. With increasing anti-refugee sentiment in his country, Erdoğan expressed his intention to create a safe zone that may be recognized by the United Nations—even suggesting that Syrian refugees may be deported back to northern Syria. For Ankara, it is extremely difficult to send the refugees back, which may cause legal, humanitarian, and security complications, but shuffling Syrians from one place to another inside Syria seems feasible. In fact, in the case of Idlib’s fall, such shuffling may become a necessity: Ankara aims to keep displaced Syrians within Syria, therefore it perceives its current controlled zones—that include the major towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad in the eastern Euphrates, and Jarabulus, Azaz, and Afrin in the northwest—very important.
The Turkish government has firmly established its presence in these areas, giving the impression that this is a permanent autonomous zone for the Syrian opposition. Turkish investments there include schools, hospitals, mosques, post offices, business chambers, and various types of higher education institutions including a new medical school in al-Rai, a vocational school in Jarabulus, a school of economics and administrative sciences in al-Bab, an Islamic theology school in Azaz, and a school of education in Afrin. Ethnographic observations indicate that the “sweeping plan” of Turkish influence has led to “Turkification” of the social landscape where locals increasingly self-identify with Turkey—a trend that will be difficult to reverse.
To bolster its “safe zone” in the longer strategic perspective, Turkey now fixes its eyes on Tal Rifaat, a Kurdish-held area that was a part of the Ankara-Moscow negotiations in 2019. Turkey accuses Russia of failing to keep its promise in the 2019 provision that “all YPG elements and their weapons were to have been removed from Manbij and Tal Rifaat.” For Ankara, capturing Tal Rifaat would mean consolidation of its territorial gains in Afrin, Azaz, Marea, and al-Bab and better security for the residents of the Turkish-controlled zones. These towns, according to Turkish officials, are frequently targeted by the YPG’s heavy weaponry in Tal Rifaat.
Due to the strategic location of Tal Rifaat for Aleppo’s security, however, Russia is unlikely to allow Turkey’s operations in the town. If the next Turkish military operation will be determined by a Moscow-Ankara agreement for a territorial swap, and even if Turkey will guarantee opening the M-4 Highway in Idlib, Tal Rifaat is an unlikely candidate for Russia to sacrifice. Rather, in return for significant gains in Idlib, Russia may allow Turkey to grab territory in the eastern Euphrates. According to some government sources1 in Ankara, the Russian green light may come for a Turkish zone from Al-Darbasiyah to Amuda, or alternatively, from al-Qahtaniyah to al-Malikiyah on the Syria-Iraq border. Some analysts still see a possibility of a Russian green light for a Turkish military operation in Tal Rifaat as long as it is limited and would not impact Moscow’s control on the ground.
Erdoğan’s Domestic Agenda
Under the Erdoğan regime, Turkey’s foreign policy has intertwined with the domestic political calculus in Ankara. As indicated in a recent think-tank report, there is a strong correlation between Turkish military operations in Syria and Erdoğan’s approval ratings. As a veteran politician, he was able to use these operations to consolidate nationalist sentiment and win critical elections over the past few years. As his political career is currently experiencing its hardest times, Erdoğan may find that another military operation would be useful. Unprecedently, in almost all polls, the deteriorating Turkish economy is the biggest public concern and the opposition may emerge victorious in the upcoming national elections. Erdoğan will count on his media army, which could persuade some Turks—confronted with “terror” and “a national security threat”—to sacrifice their financial well-being for the sake of their “great nation” that is painted as being under attack by “imperial powers.” Moreover, with a war against Kurdish militants, Erdoğan may be able to further isolate the pro-Kurdish party in the parliament, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, blocking the opposition parties’ stronger alliance formation in their electoral strategy.
Turkey’s Militarism Fed by Drone Technology
Regardless of the Erdoğan regime’s fortunes, one structural shift should be noted when analyzing Turkey’s regional policy: the growing local production of high technology unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for combat operations. Shortly after launching its first armed UAV in December 2015, Turkey has risen to become a global player in producing and exporting the most advanced drones. The Turkish military has not only used them to devastate the Syrian regime’s military assets in the conflict over Idlib, but it has also employed them to kill YPG officials. Benefiting from Washington’s acquiescence to Turkey’s expansionism in northern Iraq, Ankara has increased its drone strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) cadres across Iraqi Kurdistan, including the areas Turkey had not reached previously.
The use of low-cost, effective, and persistent airpower against Kurdish fighters supports militarist perspectives inside Turkey and a new approach to “counterterrorism”—that low-intensity drone warfare is manageable in the long term.
The use of low-cost, effective, and persistent airpower against Kurdish fighters supports militarist perspectives inside Turkey and a new approach to “counterterrorism”—that low-intensity drone warfare is manageable in the long term. The domestic debate over drones will shape future military operations in Syria and Iraq as well as the trajectory of politics on the Kurdish issue. To be sure, Turkey has garnered attention as the only country to use armed drones domestically against its own citizens. In addition, the international aspect of the debate will be equally important. In a recent bipartisan letter, for example, 27 US representatives called on the State Department to suspend export licenses for US drone technology to Turkey and to investigate if Turkish drones include US technologies that violate US sanctions.
Thus, with increasing discussions about post-Erdoğan Turkey in Washington circles, Ankara’s military-industrial complex deserves more attention. On the one hand, Turkish drone technology—and its effectiveness in changing the trajectory of conflict in Libya and Azerbaijan—reflects a long-term trend that will persist beyond the current government in Ankara. On the other hand, some analysts inside the US Army believe that Turkey’s enigmatic and only private military company, SADAT International Defense Consultancy, may likely witness an overhaul; indeed, given the risks, Turkey cannot continue to conduct proxy war operations with Syrian fighters. SADAT’s close relationship with Erdoğan has raised the question if there is a formation of loyal paramilitary forces for his personal regime; therefore, the development and future of Turkey’s relations with the Syrian fighters will be an interesting dynamic to watch.
1 The article is available in Turkish only.