BACKGROUND: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s objectives in Syria have changed significantly since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. His initial plans to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime and replace it with a Muslim Brotherhood-led government under Ankara’s tutelage gave way to a focus on preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish statelet on Turkey’s southern border. Erdoğan’s and the Turkish state’s preoccupation with Syrian Kurds has resulted first in back-channel and then official talks with Damascus, as Ankara has tried to force the Syrian strongman, and his Russian and Iranian patrons, into accepting a constitutional arrangement and a power-sharing deal with the Syrian opposition that Ankara finds agreeable.
At the root of the Turkish government’s anxieties about a Kurdish statelet in northern Syria lies the emergence of a self-governing and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in territories abandoned by forces loyal to the Assad regime. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant element within the SDC’s military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting a bloody insurgency against Turkey’s security forces since the 1980s. The SDF’s deepening military cooperation with the U.S. and growing international legitimacy following its victory over the Islamic State (IS) has exacerbated the Turkish government’s anxieties.
Aiming to prevent the SDC from controlling a contiguous territory in northern Syria, undermine its institutional and governance capacity, and kill the idea of Kurdish self-rule, Turkey launched three cross-border military operations into northern Syria, in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Since the last of these operations, Ankara has perpetuated a low-intensity conflict with the SDF, intermittently restricting the flow of water to SDC-held al-Hasakah, diverting Turkish-backed proxy forces to the territories taken from the SDF, and proposing joint Russo-Turkish administration of the SDC’s oilfields.
Since the tide of the Syrian civil war turned in Assad’s favor in late 2015, Erdoğan has remained the primary benefactor of the Syrian rebels in Idlib, in the country’s northwest. Here, the Turkish president has been trying to sustain pressure on the Assad regime while simultaneously juggling the challenges posed by jihadist attacks against Turkish forces, the unruly militias of the Turkey-backed opposition, as well as military pressure by Russia- and Iran-backed forces loyal to Assad.
Turkey’s strategies for northwest and northeast Syria are increasingly entangled as Turkish-Russian joint patrols in Idlib, Moscow’s growing relationship with the SDF, the heightened presence of the Assad regime’s troops along the Turkish border, and Washington’s sustained counterterrorism partnership with the SDF complicate Ankara’s calculus.
On the home front, Erdoğan needs to take into account the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Turkey’s deepening economic crisis, and rising anti-refugee sentiment. The advent of COVID-19 has forced Turkey to curb its troop movements in Idlib and quarantine at least three Turkish soldiers serving there as of March 16. The pandemic has also frustrated Ankara’s attempts to deprive the SDF of water, resulting in heavy criticism from human rights organizations. With this vast multitude of challenges frustrating Turkish strategic objectives in Syria, Ankara must now chart a new path in order to be able to achieve at least some of its ambitions for the region.
IMPLICATIONS: A key component of Turkey’s strategy in Idlib centers on successfully uniting the diverse factions that comprise the Syrian opposition. Since February 2019, Turkey has coordinated and mediated talks between the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, and the political umbrella of opposition groups, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). Erdoğan aims to persuade HTS to disband and join the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army while simultaneously merging the HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government with the SNC. The Turkish government, however, has so far failed to achieve this objective. While the pragmatic wing of HTS has shown interest in collaborating with Turkey, and thereby gaining international legitimacy, the radical wing has shown significance resistance, leading to defections to other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Erdoğan will likely increase Turkey’s engagement with HTS in order to create a united front with Turkish-backed opposition in both Idlib and Turkish-occupied Afrin before the pro-Assad axis inevitably commences another offensive into Idlib.
Meanwhile, HTS forces and civilians in Idlib have increasingly shown their willingness to undermine the Russo-Turkish ceasefire deal through arrests and protests, respectively. Turkey appears to have failed to win hearts and minds and inspire confidence among the local populace as indicated by various meetings of Idlib’s local bodies to discuss responses to the Turkish-Russian joint patrols. On April 26, Turkish troops killed two and wounded three protestor blocking the M4, a major road that runs from east to west through Idlib. This local skepticism will remain a major challenge to the longevity of the ceasefire and any potential deals that Ankara might strike with Moscow in the future. Turkey might have to learn the hard way that Idlib’s civilians are more than just pawns on the Syrian chessboard.
To complicate things further, Turkey’s ability to create a united front in both Idlib and Afrin is greatly challenged by the frequency of factional infighting between Turkey-backed opposition forces. There have been at least six instances of, at times deadly, infighting between various Turkey-backed proxy forces in Afrin as well as within the Turkish-occupied territory captured in 2019 during Operation Peace Spring. This infighting is largely over the control of lucrative checkpoints as well as looted goods, with the most recent clash resulting from a dispute over a washing machine, in which two fighters were seriously injured. Turkish troops have had to repeatedly intervene to break up the clashes and provide medical care to wounded fighters.
In addition, Turkish-backed groups have recently protested at least twice against Turkey, demanding that Ankara pay their salaries and allow them freedom of movement. To remedy these issues, Turkey may seek to create monetary incentives for groups who abstain from fighting, set up conflict resolution committees, and delineate control over territory and checkpoints more clearly. Turkey may also seek to punish aggressive units by delaying salaries, arms shipments, and the provision of medical aid. Given the chronic issue of infighting and protests against Turkey, Ankara will have to make some significant changes in the way it handles its proxy forces if it is to ever build a united front among the Syrian opposition.
CONCLUSIONS: Although the long list of challenges presented above should be expected to play a restraining role on Turkey’s Syria ambitions, it is also important to remember that the Turkish regime also has a history of using cross-border military operations into Syria to divert the Turkish electorate’s attention away from political and economic crises at home and to create a rally-round-the-flag effect. The public health crisis resulting from Erdoğan’s mismanagement of the coronavirus epidemic and the ensuing economic crisis is likely to pose the most significant legitimacy challenge to the Erdoğan government in its nearly 18 years in power. This could force a desperate Erdoğan to launch a fourth military operation against the SDF forces in northeast Syria, potentially pitting Turkish and U.S. forces against one another in the process.
An optimistic alternative scenario though is that Ankara’s urgent need for bailout packages from international financial institutions and currency swap arrangements with Western central banks will end up having a moderating effect on the Turkish regime’s foreign and security policy. This would also have a restraining effect on the Turkish president’s ambitions in Syria, preventing a fourth military incursion against the SDF, at least for the time being.
However, given that rational and institutional policy deliberations have for the most part disappeared from Ankara, it is near impossible to predict how President Erdoğan and his inner circle of confidants in the presidential palace will respond to the challenges that Turkey faces in Syria in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic.
Aykan Erdemir is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament.
Luc Sasseville is an intern at the Turkey Program of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @aykan_erdemir
Image Source: Turkish Ministry of Defense accessed on 4.27.2020