The war in Ukraine may have dominated international political agenda, but Syria file is also very much active.
Most recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement on May 23, when he said that Turkey is on its way to carry out a new military operation in northern Syria, made headlines. He did not specify when, but made reference to a security zone of 30 km in depth from the border and emphasized that the aim would be to secure places which could not be taken during the previous military operations. Turkish officials say that these areas are used by People's Protection Units (YPG) to launch attacks.
Now the debate is whether Erdoğan really intends to move in or whether he is bluffing.
At the outset of the crisis in Syria back in 2011, Turkey worked for reconciliation between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents, then became strongly anti-Assad.
Faced with very serious threats and challenges from beyond its borders, Turks came up with various ideas such as “secure zones” and “no fly zones” but could not convince their NATO partners and other so-called like-minded countries to go along to implement these ideas.
Turkey then took unilateral action and based it on article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations (self-defense clause). Within this framework, Turkey conducted the following three military operations in northern Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016), Olive Branch (January 2018) and Peace Spring (October 2019).
These areas span around 8,300 square kilometers and 2.3 million people. They are under the control of the Syrian National Army, supported by Turkish armed forces, and run by local councils and Syrian opposition’s interim government, with serious financial and technical support from Turkey. Despite the occasional infighting among opposition armed groups and some mismanagement and corruption claims, these areas are in general secure and in better shape than the areas under the control of Assad or the YPG.
Idlib on the other hand is a different case. It is the last remaining de-escalation zone, established as a result of agreement between Turkey and Russia within the framework of the Astana Process. Idlib is controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group and is run by its civilian administering body, the National Salvation Government. It is important to recall that HTS (former al-Nusra Front) is listed as a terror organization.
Idlib is overwhelmed by refugees from other parts of Syria. Around the Bab al-Hawa area, adjacent to Turkey, 2 million Syrian IDPs live in makeshift camps. The total number of Syrians living in HTS-controlled parts of Idlib (3,100 square meters) are around 4 million. Turkish troops are also based in Idlib to prevent attacks on civilians and thus, stop new waves of refugee flows into Turkey.
Turkey’s major considerations regarding northern Syria are;
- To counter threats from the YPG, ISIS and Assad regime among others.
- To ensure safe areas where Syrians living in Turkey can move back to.
Regarding security considerations:
- ISIS has lost territorial control, but still maintains operational capability and the means to inflict serious damage.
- Assad keeps his seat of power, to a very large extent by virtue of Russian and Iranian support.
The YPG - the Syrian arm of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is officially recognized as a terrorist organization - controls around 40 percent of Syria. It enjoys the support of the US and many other western nations as the regional partner in the fight against ISIS and other radical organizations.The YPG, which has relabeled itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces, administers areas under its control with what is called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and it has built a state-like structure.
With military operations, the last one being in 2019, Turkey has secured half the 911-km Turkish-Syrian border, but pockets of towns and areas and the region east of Ras al-Ain remain in YPG hands. In 2019, Turkey signed separate agreements with the US and Russia. Despite the deals, the YPG has partially withdrawn to the south of M4 highway and thus,Turkey claims that agreements are not fully honored.
On the refugees, returning as much of them back to Syria has become something of an election promise. Erdoğan announced projects of bricket houses on the other side of the border.
What could be the likely reaction of some major parties to a fresh Turkish operation?
The spokesperson of the US State Department said that a new offensive in northern Syria would further undermine regional stability and harm the campaign against ISIS. The Pentagon press secretary talked along the same lines.
Iran, may have similar concerns with Turkey regarding YPG ambitions, but will most probably oppose a Turkish military operation.
Russia has never recognized the PKK as a terror organization and is on good terms with the YPG. In principle it too will oppose Turkey’s military operation, but it could also see this as an opportunity to create friction among western allies and draw attention from Ukraine to elsewhere.
In any case, Syria is important for Russia in many ways. It may be restructuring its presence in Syria, but it is not withdrawing. Russia has around 20 bases in Syria, the most known ones are the Hmeimim air and Tartus naval bases. These gains may not be lost. Russia also regards Syria as a place where it can apply pressure on NATO countries opposing it in Ukraine.
The other important issue in the near future is cross-border delivery of humanitarian assistance from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. UNSC resolution 2585, which regulates this assistance, will expire on July 10 and this time, Russia stated that it is opposed to extending it.
In conclusion, as I argued in some previous articles, elections are only a year or so away in Turkey and almost nothing can be regarded independent of these polls, including Syria-related security and refugee issues.
Turkey has concerns regarding the YPG/PKK and feels let down by allies. Its objection towards Sweden and Finland’s membership to NATO is also in this vein.
The presence of Turkish armed forces on Syrian territory may indicate otherwise, but Turkey supports the unity and territorial integrity of Syria. It has stated that it will leave as soon as the threat is gone.
The US, on the other hand, claims that it too supports Syria’s territorial integrity and will not back separatist ambitions. The American track record not only in Syria, but also Afghanistan, makes US assurances on anything very difficult to believe. The US keeps supplying the YPG with weapons and equipment and recent sanctions waivers by Washington have also been regarded as yet another form of strong support.
Despite various difficulties and at the risk of potential new disputes with major allies including the US, and confrontation with other parties, it is still possible that Turkey may take steps it deems necessary.