Will Turkey Attack Syria Again?

Several regional media outlets have published articles in recent days about a possibly imminent Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria. Is such a raid likely?
The reports and rumors follow a summit between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the resort city of Sochi on September 29. The summit came after an escalation of tensions between Turkish and Russian forces in Syria in the previous days. On September 26, following statements by Putin critical of the presence of “foreign forces” in Syria, Russian planes carried out raids in Turkish / rebel-held areas of the Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Russia’s frequently stated strategic objective in Syria is the reunification of the country under the nominal rule of the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Putin’s reference to “foreign forces” is intended to convey that while Russian and Iranian forces operate in Syria at the invitation of the dictator, other non-Syrian elements, such as Turkish and American deployments, are there without Assad’s permission.

In response to the Russian escalation, Erdogan reinforced the Turkish military presence on the front line. This, in turn, led to an increased presence of Syrian regime forces. The summit on the 29th was aimed at reducing tensions. No joint statement followed, but Erdogan was quoted as saying that the talks had focused on reaching a “final and sustainable solution” to the Syrian problem.

At the same time, tensions have been building in recent weeks on a different front in Syria: between Turkey and the Kurdish-controlled Northeast Syrian Autonomous Administration. Turkey claims that the Kurdish organization YPG has increased cross-border attacks in recent weeks.

Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters in training at a military camp in Ras al-Ain, February 13 (credit: REUTERS)

Erdogan described an attack on the Turkish-controlled city of Azaz on October 11 as the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The Turkish president affirmed that “we have no patience with respect to some regions of Syria that have the quality of being a source of attacks on our country … We are determined to eliminate the threats that originate from here either with the active forces there. or by our own means “.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on October 13 that Turkey “would do whatever is necessary for its security” following the increase in attacks.

The notion being discussed is that Turkey could seek to act directly against Kurdish targets in Syria, possibly offering Russia and the Assad regime some gains in the Idlib area as a reward. A report on Monday from the Middle East Eye website suggested that in exchange for the destruction of the Kobani canton, Turkey would allow joint Turkish / Russian control of the strategic M4 motorway, which runs from Aleppo to the coast.

According to pro-government Turkish media reports, translated by the al-Monitor website, leaders of Syrian Islamist armed groups aligned with Turkey have already been briefed in Ankara on “tactics and strategies for a fourth military campaign in Syria.” . (Turkey has already carried out three campaigns against the Kurds in Syria: Euphrates Shield Operations in 2016, Olive Branch in 2018 and Fountain of Peace in 2019).

Possible target areas for such an offensive would be Tel Rifaat and Manbij, west of the Euphrates, and Ain Issa and Tal Tamr, east of the river. Tel Rifaat, an isolated Kurdish enclave supplied by regime-controlled territory, is the most vulnerable area. His control would strengthen the rebel Turkish and Islamist position in the Aleppo governorate.

Another possible target of a Turkish offensive would be to simultaneously attack Manbij and Ain Issa, in an attempt to link pro-Turkish forces to the Kurdish-controlled south of Kobani. The latter was the scene of a major battle against ISIS in 2014.

However, diplomatic factors must surely complicate any decision by Turkey on an offensive. Ain Issa and Tal Tamr lie east of the Euphrates. This area is within the zone of operations against ISIS, as defined by the United States and its allies. There is a precedent for Turkish activity east of the river. Operation Peace Fountain created an area of ​​Turkish control east of the Euphrates following the announcement by then-US President Donald Trump of the US withdrawal from Syria in October 2019.

But any renewed Turkish offensive in the area could only take place with the agreement or acquiescence of the United States. Much may depend on the ability or desire of US President Joe Biden to make clear to the Turkish President that no further advances in the area will be tolerated in the hands of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and of the American forces themselves.

But if America’s objections turn out to be a sufficient impediment to any Turkish push from Ain Issa or Tal Tamr, any action west of the Euphrates will also be subject to diplomatic considerations. The Kurdish YPG west of the river operates outside the framework of the SDF and is not protected by the US But west of the river is the Russian fiefdom (in association with the Assad regime). Therefore, unless Russia grants permission for any Turkish incursion, it is difficult to see how such an operation could be carried out. For this reason, the Sochi summit on the 29th remains of central interest.

FROM now, according to Arab media sources, the accumulation of forces in the area of ​​the Fountain of Peace continues. A report by Kamal Sheikho in the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Tuesday noted that members of the “Al-Sharqiya Army, the Suleiman Shah faction, the Ninth Division and other formations of the Turkish-backed” Syrian National Army “factions loyal to Turkey, arrived on Friday in the border city of Tal Abyad with Turkey, north of Raqqa, after crossing Turkish territory from the areas of the ‘Euphrates Shield’ in the Aleppo countryside ”.

Simultaneously, regime forces are conducting ground maneuvers in the Tal Tamr area, opposite the Turkish-controlled area. Large-scale maneuvers are supported by Russian aircraft. Both Russian and regime forces have been able to deploy in parts of the SDF-controlled area since Operation Peace Spring in 2019, when they were invited by Kurdish forces to prevent deeper Turkish incursions into Syria.

Erdogan’s decision-making takes place in a context of economic and political difficulties for the Turkish leader. With the 2023 elections in the offing, the Turkish president may view a new “victory” against PKK-associated forces in Syria as a tantalizing prospect. As is customary in broken Syria in 2021, the key issues affecting this decision relate to the concerns and wishes of other international actors on Syrian soil. The Assad regime is largely irrelevant.

It is still unclear whether the current saber rattling will result in actual movement of the Turkish aligned forces outside of their current areas of control. The days to come will decide. Look at this space.


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