On May 23rd, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey is preparing for a major military operation in northern Syria against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militia forces and the Syrian Kurdish armed groups. If carried out, this will be the fifth major military operation by Turkey in northern Syria since 2016. President Erdoğan and his foreign policy team have declared the main goal of this operation as the weakening and removal of PKK forces that Turkey views as a Kurdish separatist terrorist group from a 30-kilometer strip on Turkey-Syria border.
Ever since, there has been a large amount of speculation and analysis by international relations experts about the motivation and timing of this operation.
In addition to immediate military objectives against the PKK, Erdoğan is also interested in resettling up to one million Syrian refugees in the enlarged “safe zone” that this operation will create. In the past two years the worsening economic conditions in Turkey have led to growing anti-refugee sentiments. Several opposition parties have also echoed these sentiments and concern about refugees is likely to be a major concern among voters in the next presidential election scheduled for June 2023.
Erdoğan is also well aware of these sentiments and has tried to buy support for his proposed military operation by arguing that it will pave the way for returning and settling the refugees in the “expanded” safe zone. Turkey and po-Turkey Syrian paramilitary groups already control some Syrian territory along the border but it is very narrow in some areas and disconnected. Furthermore, these areas are still unstable and vulnerable to exchange of fire with the Syrian and Kurdish forces.
Erdoğan’s plan for a new military operation in Syria comes at a time when the Turkish economy is experiencing one of its worst inflation since 1998. Inflation has reached record high levels and lira has lost a quarter of its value against the U.S. dollar this year. This exchange rate increase has reduced the purchasing power of millions of Turkish citizens and has pushed many below the poverty line.
A series of recent economic policies for addressing this crisis have proven ineffective, partly as a result of the adverse effects of the Ukraine war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sharply increased the price of natural gas and crude oil (two largest import items for Turkey), and the rising energy import bill has worsened the country’s large balance of payment deficit.
The timing: Erdoğan appears to be serious about this military operation and has repeated his intent several times since May 23rd. He has claimed that the Turkish military is ready and the operations can start at any time. While sporadic exchange of fire in the Turkish-held regions is a daily occurrence, there has been no escalation in PKK violence against Turkey in recent months to create a sense of urgency for such an operation to take place now. Instead it appears that the Ukraine conflict has created a unique opportunity and a very favourable time window for Turkey to initiate this operation. Turkey believes that the Ukraine conflict has reduced Russian and American opposition to its planned military operation in Syria.
Syria has been fragmented since the 2011 civil war and several countries including The United States, Russia and Iran maintain military assets in that country. Turkey must always take the balance of power and the potential reaction of major players into account before any operation in Northern Syria. In the past both, the United States and Russia have opposed or contained Turkey’s military interventions in northern Syria. President Erdogan believes that Turkey’s unique and strategic role in the Ukraine war is likely to reduce any potential opposition to its military intervention in Syria by both of these powers under current circumstances.
Even though both, the United States and Russia, in recent weeks have expressed their opposition to President Erdogan’s proposed operation, he believes they will not do anything in practice because they both need Turkey. As Erdogan sees it Russia has had to move some of its assets from Syria to Ukraine and it also appreciates Turkey’s neutrality in the Ukraine war despite being a NATO member.
Similarly, Turkey believes that the United States needs Turkey’s approval for accepting Sweden and Finland into NATO and therefore will be reluctant to anger Turkey by blocking its military intervention in Syria.
Erdogan is not worried about the Syrian army and President Assad’s regional allies, Iran and Hezbollah, either. The Syrian army is weak and is unlikely to initiate a direct military confrontation with the superior Turkish military. Iran’s ability to assist Assad financially and militarily has suffered a setback because of the severe American economic sanctions and repeated Israeli attacks on its military assets in Syria. Consequently, Erdogan views the current conditions as a unique window of opportunity for a military intervention in Syria with multiple political and strategic benefits that were discussed above. As A result of these ideal conditions, he believes that this military incursion can be carried out quickly and efficiently with low casualties and manageable economic costs. Yet this proposed military operation faces a number of risks and challenges that Turkey cannot afford to ignore.
Potential risk factors: The success of Erdogan’s military operation will depend on a number of assumptions that cannot necessarily be taken for granted. First, despite their preoccupation with the Ukraine war, both Russia and the United States are concerned about the impact of Turkey’s proposed military operation on their own interests in Syria. The U.S. maintains an alliance with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is the dominant Kurdish faction in northeastern Syria. In return for helping the US fight against the Islamic State terror organization (ISIS) in Syria, PYD has received military support from the United States.
Since the threat of ISIS terror organization has diminished in recent years. The PYD is no longer as important for the U.S. as it was before. This alliance, however, is still important for US efforts to contain the Iranian forces in Syria. As a result, it is unlikely that the US will completely abandon the PYD in face of a fresh Turkish invasion. The U.S. is also concerned that Kurds might develop an alliance with the Assad regime out of desperation if the US abandons them-an outcome that is favoured by Russians and President Assad. Consequently, while it is unlikely that the U.S. will risk its relations with Turkey to prevent this military operation, it will use its leverage on Tukey to limit the operation’s range and impact on the Kurds in northeastern Syria. This implies that Turkey might fall short of its 30-kilometer-wide territorial control target in areas that Kurds have an alliance with the United States.
There is also some doubt about Russia’s tolerance of a new Turkish offensive. Despite relocating a sizable portion of its soldiers from Syria to Ukraine, Russia remains committed to maintaining the status quo in northern Syria. This is demonstrated by Russia’s recent transfer of fighter jets and helicopters to the Qamishli airbase in the Kurdish controlled regions in northern Syria at the same time that it warned Turkey against a new cross-border military operation. This move was triggered by the more recent comment of President Erdogan in which he named Tel Rifaat and Manbij as two targets of his proposed military operation. Before this announcement Russia was under the impression that the operation will focus on the Kurdish regions to the east of the Euphrates river that have an alliance with the United States.
Tel Rifaat and Manbij are two large population centres that are also home to thousands of Kurdish refugees from previous Turkish operations. While both cities are controlled by the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian government forces are also present in their peripheral areas under Russian support. Any Turkish military operation to capture these two towns without Russian approval, is likely to meet some resistance in and around these cities.
Another risk factor is a potential adverse reaction by major Arab countries. Up until 2018 the Assad regime was highly isolated in the Arab world because of its close alliance with Iran. As a result of their hostile attitude toward the Syrian government, Arab governments generally kept quiet in response to previous Turkish military operations in Syria. This time their reaction might be different. President Assad’s isolation in the Arab world has declined in recent years and he has reopened diplomatic contacts with the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These Arab governments have come to the realization that Assad’s rule in Syria is secure and it is in their strategic interest to restore normal diplomatic relations in hope of reducing Assad’s reliance on Iran. They are also interested in potential investment opportunities in Syria’s post-war reconstruction. In this context, the leaders of UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt might voice their opposition to a new Turkish military offensive in northern Syria.
Even if the Arab opposition to a new Turkish military operation will be limited to diplomatic condemnation, it can cause a setback in President Erdogan’s efforts to repair Turkey’s relations with these countries. In the past 12 months, Turkey’s dire economic crisis has compelled Erdogan to initiate diplomatic visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia with a primary focus on attracting Arab investment and trade. A large-scale Turkish operation, involving confrontations with Syrian government forces and large numbers of Syrian casualties might provoke protests from these Arab countries and pose a risk to President Erdogan’s rapprochement initiative.
Potential adverse domestic impact: The risk factors described above can increase the social and economic costs of this military operation. If the operation is successful and goes according to plan the troop movement and capture of the targeted areas will be relatively fast, and with manageable costs. If, on the other hand, the operations last longer than expected and require significantly more financial resources, the fiscal burden will be significant because of Turkey’s current economic conditions. The government budget deficit has increased sharply in the first four months of 2022 and the “Saving Lira” program that was introduced in December 2021 to stabilize the exchange rate, will add a significant financial burden on the fiscal budget in the second half of 2022. A large unplanned military expense on top of that can have devastating effects on the economy.
Consequently, even if the operation itself increases Erdoğan’s popularity on patriotic and nationalistic grounds, the economic burden of the operation will worsen the poverty and inflation pains for millions of voters. Furthermore, even if the territorial objectives are achieved quickly, maintaining and pacifying the additional territories are likely to be costly and difficult. There are currently frequent exchanges of fire across the border of the Syrian territories that Turkey already controls. Relocating the Syrian refugees to these and the additional territories that Turkey hopes to seize in the proposed military operation will not be feasible as long as the expanded “safe zone” remains vulnerable to violence and exchange of fire. Hence any potential political gains of refugee settlement in northern Syria will also be affected by these risk factors.
A less costly alternative: Erdoğan and his foreign policy team have repeatedly emphasized that Turkey has no territorial ambitions in northern Syria and the only reason for current occupation of the near border areas is to fight the PKK and secure the borders. If this is the case the stated objectives of the proposed military operation can be achieved at a much lower cost through a major revision in Turkey’s policy toward Syria. In 2021, Turkey has shown considerable flexibility in its relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Why not show the same flexibility toward Syria?
In recent years the international isolation of the Bashar Assad regime has decreased significantly. There is now even a possibility that, with the encouragement of its Middle Eastern allies, even the United States might abandon its quest for regime change in Syria, and lift some of the economic sanctions. Under these new circumstances Turkey can address its concerns about the PKK presence in northern Syria and the return of Syrian refugees, more effectively through a reduction of hostilities with the Syrian government and restoration of the security agreements that were in effect before the Syrian civil war.