On August 24, Turkish armor, infantry, and air units crossed the Syrian border and, in conjunction with the Ankara-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) Sunni-dominated rebel group, launched a full-scale assault on the Islamic State-controlled city of Jarabulus. Simultaneously, the Turkish-FSA force moved against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) rebel movement in northern Syria, which had recently captured a number of villages and towns west of the Euphrates River from Islamic State (IS) forces.
The Turkish offensive, code-named “Euphrates Shield,” is aimed at clearing Islamist and Kurdish forces from the Syrian side of the Syria-Turkey border. It addresses strategic concerns for Turkey, but is informed by domestic and international politics and has potentially grave implications for the Syrian conflict more widely, as well as for Washington’s regional influence.
Why has Turkey decided to strike now? Certainly, Ankara was provoked by IS. The Islamist group has launched a number of attacks using suicide improvised explosive devices (SIED) and small arms in Turkey over the past year, including one in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square on January 12, which killed 13 tourists, as well as the June 28 attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. In the latest incident, on August 22, an SIED was detonated at a wedding in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, causing the Turkish foreign minister to declare that the IS presence across the border must be “cleansed” (Hurriyet Daily News, August 22).
However, it was the YPG’s capture of territory west of the Euphrates, bringing the PYD one step closer to uniting its disparate cantons of Afrin, Jazira and Kobani into one contiguous territory, which was the primary driver behind Turkish intervention. Ankara regards the PYD and its associated groups as a threat to its own security. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly stated that the PYD is synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting a 32-year insurgency in Turkey’s south-eastern provinces for Kurdish independence (Andalou Agency, August 3). A united Kurdish proto-state on Turkey’s southern flank, bordering Gaziantep, Mardin and Şanlıurfa sub-regions, areas where the PKK is combatting the Turkish military, is a situation Ankara will not countenance. Such a scenario could, through Turkey’s eyes, see the PKK using PYD territory as a safe haven, and the PYD funneling arms across the border.
Turkey’s threat-assessment is reasonable. Although the United States – which designates the PKK as a terrorist group but supports the PYD as one of the more effective Syrian rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and IS – argues that the two groups are separate, there is evidence to contradict this (eKurd Daily, March 24). PYD weapon systems have been found by security forces in PKK safe-houses in northern Iraq, and on March 11 a PYD official was arrested in the border town of Cizre on suspicion of smuggling ammunition to the PKK (Daily Sabah, October 16, 2015; Yeni Safak, March 11).
Even so, Ankara also overstates the situation when it says the PKK and PYD are synonymous. Each group has its own command-and-control structures and territorial objectives, though the two are partially connected – particularly in the facilitation of weapons across the border. Yet, Kurdish forces have crossed Turkish “red lines” before without suffering such penalties. In December 2015, Kurdish-led forces seized the Tishrin Dam, a strategic location around 66 km south of Jarabulus byroad, which allowed Kurdish forces to project power west of the Euphrates. The Kurdish forces ignored Turkish warnings such moves would spark a heavy military response (al-Monitor, October 26, 2015). Barring some limited air strikes, however, the promised retaliation never came.
To understand “why now” requires looking beyond the strategic and focusing on the political dimensions. Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia in June 2016 has given it operational freedom in northern Syria. Anti-Kurdish and anti-IS operations alone would not have brought Ankara into direct opposition to Moscow. However, the previously poor relations between the two countries, following the Turkish downing of a Russian military aircraft in December 2015, meant that any inadvertent confrontation between the two sides would have entailed an unacceptable risk of war.
As relations with Russia have improved, those with the United States, which has discouraged anti-PYD action, have become strained. Washington has refused to extradite cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Ankara regards as responsible for July’s failed coup by a military faction (AP, August 25). Furthermore, Ankara is infuriated by U.S. criticism of its post-coup purge of suspected Gülenists (International Business Times, July 18). Euphrates Shield is an opportunity for Turkey to demonstrate it can act unilaterally and to remind the United States that it cannot control Turkish foreign policy.
Moreover, there is a strong domestic incentive for military action. The post-coup political environment in Turkey is unstable, marked by mass-arrests and the concentration of power in the hands of the presidency. The deployment of the military abroad gives the Turkish high command a chance to restore its battered reputation and occupies a fighting force that might, without distraction, launch a second coup attempt.
Impact on Syria’s Civil War
The Turkish-FSA operation is the latest blow to Western hopes of removing President Assad, whose regime forces are conducting a resurgent campaign nationwide. Euphrates Shield further fragments the opposition, leaving Assad with strategic breathing space in northern Syria. Meanwhile, regime forces have effectively isolated the city of Aleppo, IS is losing ground on all fronts, and Russian airpower has provided the muscle Assad’s military needed to turn the tide of the war.
Furthermore, China has quietly escalated its support for the Assad regime, floating the possibility of military cooperation (see China Brief, August 22). Stronger Chinese support strengthens Assad’s international position. By reinforcing the regime’s diplomatic bulwarks, any potential Western-led intervention is further discouraged.
Rivals and Allies
The Turkish operation shifts the balance-of-power towards the regime. Despite Ankara’s diplomatic rhetoric that Assad must go, its immediate strategic priorities actually align with the Syrian regime, reducing the likelihood of Assad’s removal from office as part of any political settlement to end the civil war.
For the United States, the response has so far been a balancing act between two allies. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called on Kurdish forces to retreat across the Euphrates, saying that the Kurds will lose U.S. support unless they withdraw (al-Monitor, August 24). Simultaneously, U.S. policymakers have put pressure on Turkey to limit military actions against YPG forces (Hurriyet Daily News, August 31). This involves treading a tight-rope between both factions, but more robust action risks alienating either Turkey or the PYD. Neither is a palatable option.
The United States is constrained by its lack of coercive capability on the ground. In order to manage the situation it will be necessary to be crystal clear on the political conditions attached to aid, both to Turkey and the PYD, and consistent in applying censure when those conditions are disregarded. Anything less risks allowing two crucial allies to wage full-scale war in northern Syria, a confrontation that could easily spread into southern Turkey and further destabilize an already chaotic region.