Omer Onhon

Possibility of a Military Operation and a Handshake in Syria

The Turkish army may be preparing for a new round of land operations in the north of Syria. The Minister of Defense and his General Staff are seen in photographs in full camouflage gear either in the operation room in Ankara or along the Syrian border.

Türkiye is concerned that YPG (Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units) may carve out a state in Syria next to its borders, that it can launch terror attacks and stir up all kinds of trouble. Türkiye wants the YPG preferably to disappear altogether or go as far away from its borders as possible.

The last Turkish land operation into Syria was in 2019. Türkiye conducted the operation and secured an area between the towns of Tel Abyad and Rasulayn (so-called Operation Peace Spring area).

The US and Russia were opposed to the operation. As a result of an intense diplomatic process, Türkiye concluded separate agreements with the two countries and claiming all objectives achieved, ended the operation.

Looking at these agreements, one may conclude that they were in Türkiye’s favor. The joint statement with the US and the memorandum with Russia referred to establishing a secure zone as Türkiye has requested. (The zone which Türkiye wants to establish along its 911 kilometers of border with Syria is around 30 kilometers in depth from the borderline, which roughly coincides with the M4 motorway). Both agreements included references to YPG laying down its arms and withdrawing from all areas within this zone. All YPG elements and their weapons were to be removed from the towns of Manbij and Tal Rifat.

The 2019 agreements have been only partially implemented and the YPG is still very much present with its weapons in Manbij, Tal Rifat, Tal Tamr and Ayn Issa.

Since last May, President Erdogan has been talking about a new military operation into northern Syria to complete the unfinished business.

The terror attack in Istanbul on November 13 gave Türkiye a good reason to strike YPG and drive it off. Five days after the attack, Türkiye began picking YPG/PKK targets in northern Syria and northern Iraq with jets, drones, missiles and artillery.

Whether this is a “from a distance punitive operation” without a land component or the first stage of a wider operation where the second stage is the Turkish army going into Syria to capture the areas held by YPG remains to be seen.

President Erdogan seems keen to move forward with his plans of going into Syria. But what will happen in the coming days and to what extent, will also depend on the international environment and circumstances.

The Syria policy of the United States is obscure and difficult to understand. The US line is: “our priority in Syria is ISIS”. The US repeats this line as if this issue is a stand alone one, detached from everything else.

In Syria, the United States has partnered with the YPG. It has trained the YPG and provided it with military hardware including sophisticated anti-tank weapons. YPG has grown into an entity running around 25 per cent or more of Syria.

The major source of its finances comes from oil fields in the areas under its control.

The United States, again, is not at ease with the idea of a Turkish land operation. It fears that it will distract the YPG and hamper the fight against ISIS. It also sights the threat posed to its soldiers in the area.

But then, there is an ongoing war in Ukraine, there is a revolt in Iran, Caucasus is fragile, radicalism is an ever present threat and Türkiye is in the middle of all that. Relations between Türkiye and the United States are strained as they are and the US should not want to further alienate Türkiye.

As to the other two main actors in Syria; Türkiye has become an important element in Russia’s war effort in Ukraine and in its foreign policy in a number of ways. Russia would not wish to have unnecessary problems with Türkiye in this conjuncture.

Iran is also occupied with social unrest at home and would like to keep its western neighbor at bay.

But despite these serious distractions, even with less visibility and perhaps weight, Russia and Iran continue to be very much present in Syria. They are still able to have an influence on the way things develop.

Up until recently, Türkiye was concerned with who controlled Syria and it was against Assad. Now, what concerns Türkiye most, seems to be Syria’s territorial integrity rather than who controls it.

President Erdogan is becoming more vocal in his wish of re-establishing relations with Assad. Only a few days ago, he said “if relations have improved with Egypt, the same thing may happen with Syria. In politics there is no such thing as not speaking to each other!!”

He was referring to his handshake with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt on the inauguration day of the World Cup in Doha last week. President Erdogan has fiercely opposed and spoken against President Sisi since his takeover of power in 2013. Now, as strange as it may seem, he has left all these behind.

President Erdogan seems enthusiastic to go ahead with making peace with Assad. The upcoming elections in Turkey in the first half of next year stimulates the government to pursue a deal with Assad. If it turns out to be possible, the government would be able to claim another major diplomatic success. It would also claim to have paved the way for the return of Syrians in Türkiye who have become a major domestic policy issue.

Assad on the other hand appears to be less enthusiastic for a deal. But with the right incentives, I do not think that he would say no to neutralizing the pressure exerted by Erdogan, whom he regards as one of the major reasons for his troubles.

On another note, Assad may regard the Turkish operations in northern Syria as violation of Syria’s territorial integrity but he shouldn't be unhappy with Türkiye and YPG fighting each other. By his standards, any sort of political and military harm to Türkiye would be most welcome. He would be equally content with any damage inflicted on the YPG which has ambitions in terms of carving out of Syria an entity for itself.

A number of Syrian soldiers are reported to have been killed as a result of most recent Turkish bombings. Assad would not lose sleep over such an incident and it would not hinder prospects of a potential Erdogan-Assad rapprochement. But a number of other issues, such as what becomes of the opposition and the armed groups could.