On May 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Türkiye would start a new cross-border operation in Syria once preparations were complete. He defined the main objective of the new operation as establishing a 30 kilometer-deep “safe zone” on the southern borders of Türkiye. A week later, the Turkish president repeated his statements, and defined the new operational zone as Tel Rifat and Manbij, Syria (aa.com.tr, June 1). An operation in this area aims to expand the safe zone already controlled by Türkiye in northern Syria, while pushing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, or PKK) and its offshoots further from Turkish borders.
Considering other geopolitical and non-state actors’ stakes in the region, such a move will have political consequences. However, the Turkish administration seems determined to undertake this operation by mitigating the existing risks and pursuing a close dialogue with its counterparts, particularly Moscow. Ankara also plans to reap some political gains at home after the operation.
Shifting to a Preemptive Strategy
Taking advantage of the peace process (çözüm süreci) introduced by the AK Party government in 2013, the PKK had attempted to claim control and establish rebel-controlled zones in Türkiye’s southern provinces. To prevent access of the Turkish security forces, PKK dug trenches and tunnels, built barricades, and started establishing checkpoints on roads. Such activities reached their climax in 2015, and Türkiye undertook a large counter-PKK operation, which was concentrated in Diyarbakır, Hakkari, Mardin and Şırnak.
A security-oriented agenda had aided the AK Party’s popularity in the November 2015 elections, which resulted in a landslide victory with the party receiving more than 49% of the votes. Following the operations domestically, attacks changed form and Turkish cities were targeted by both Islamic State (IS) and PKK attacks, including in Ankara, İstanbul, Gaziantep, and Kilis (Sözcü, February 18, 2016; Yeni Şafak, March 14, 2016; Hürriyet, March 20, 2016; Cumhuriyet, June 30, 2016; Hürriyet, August 21, 2016; BBC Türkçe, May 9, 2016).
Consequently, Ankara adopted a preemptive strategy in 2016 and carried out numerous operations in Iraq and Syria (Haberturk, October 19, 2016). The short-term objective of this strategy was to eliminate asymmetric threats emanating from non-state actors beyond Türkiye’s borders and secure border-cities. In the long term, Turkish officials perceived the expansion of PKK and its affiliated groups, Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Defense Units (YPG) as the primary threat to national security and the operations, therefore, also aimed to prevent a “terror corridor” next to the country’s southern borders.
Ankara’s shift in strategy in 2016 saw attacks dramatically decrease in Türkiye, but this was not the same for operational zones in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Syrian civilians and Turkish troops have continued to be targeted in Azaz, al-Bab, and Jarablus, Syria and in Iraq in the form of bomb attacks or rocket strikes since the beginning of the operations (VOA Türkçe, January 13; Sabah, April 22; Habertürk, April 18; Cumhuriyet, April 25). To eliminate these risks and secure the Turkish borders, the Turkish Armed Forces finally launched the Claw-Lock (Pençe-Kilit) Operation in northern Iraq in April 2022, and now is planning the new cross-border operation in Syria (aa.com.tr, June 1). President Erdoğan asserted that although the targets will be Tel Rifat and Manbij, the operation will continue in other regions until a 30 kilometer-deep “safe zone” is established.
The other factor that shapes Ankara’s strategy is linked to the socio-economic structure of Tel Rifat and Manbij, which were predominantly Arab-populated areas before the Syrian civil war and saw thousands of Syrians from these areas flee to Türkiye in the past decade (Crisis Group, May 4, 2017; alaraby.co.uk, July 15, 2019). Located to the west of the Euphrates, Manbij has access to water resources, which makes it critical for Türkiye’s plans to resettle half a million more Syrians from Türkiye into the new “safe zone.” Although in its current operational zones, such as in Jarablus and Afrin, Türkiye continues to construct infrastructure and superstructures and provide public services, resettling more people in those zones requires planning water and food supply for the residing population. This is all more readily accessible in Manbij.
Political Motives for Repatriating Syrians
In the last six years, more than half a million Syrian migrants in Türkiye have returned to their homes (Habertürk, March 3). The “safe zone” in the northwestern Syria’s Jarablus-Afrin axis has become a gathering point for them. Nonetheless, this momentum has slowed due to unstable security dynamics caused by non-state actors and attacks and scarce resources in the area. Turkish officials argue that the new operation may pave the way for half a million more Syrians to resettle in the expanded-secured safe zone (Hürriyet, May 4).
The Syrian migration issue has also become a significant element of domestic politics since the municipal elections in 2019 and will likely dominate the agenda in the upcoming presidential and parliamentarian elections in 2023. Surveys show that a newly established political party, Zafer (Victory) Party, has increased its popularity up to two percent from scratch by campaigning solely on the Syrian migration issue (Cumhuriyet, August 4). Facing harsh criticisms from the opposition, it seems the government envisages using its resettlement plan as a success story in the upcoming campaign period.
Considering AK Party’s nationalist agenda, a new operation will serve the party’s interest to divert public attention toward ‘the survival agenda’ against terrorist elements. This is also a pragmatic policy choice because economic indicators in Türkiye have tumbled in the post-pandemic period. The economy will potentially be the Achilles’ heel of the AK Party for the first time in its two-decade rule and it needs to offset this by showing it is resettling Syrians in their home country and it is scoring military victories on PKK offshoots.
Additionally, the Turkish government seeks to take advantage of the changing international power balance. The Kremlin is striving to break the Ukrainian resistance in the Donbas while struggling with the repercussions of sanctions. Naturally, Syria has become a secondary issue on the Kremlin’s agenda. Türkiye, therefore, is trying to use this as leverage in its dialogue with Russia on Syria. While Russian troops are reassessing their position in Syria, it seems that Iran is trying to fill the power vacuum (JPost, May 21). Ankara believes that Russia’s reaction will be limited under these circumstances if a new cross-border operation is launched. Although the Kremlin continues to send mixed signals, it seems that the Russians want the Syrian government’s forces to advance to the north rather than the Turkish military to move southwards in western Syria.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin has left some margin for negotiation. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in his visit to Ankara that “We understand and take into consideration our Turkish friends’ sensitivities regarding the security threats, emanating from the separatist groups that are supported by the U.S on their borders (Cumhuriyet, June 10).” Lavrov’s statement can be interpreted as a” yellow light” of approval for the new Turkish operation. But Moscow also aims to redirect Türkiye’s energy to the areas where the U.S troops are deployed, as opposed to where Russians are deployed.
Erdoğan’s Visits to Tehran and Sochi
On June 19, Erdoğan visited Tehran to join a trilateral summit with his counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Ebrahem Raisi. He also had a bilateral meeting with the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During the visit, Erdoğan reemphasized Türkiye’s concerns about a “terror corridor” next to its southern borders. The officially published follow-up on Khamenei’s website showed, however, that Iran was dissatisfied with Türkiye’s plans for a new cross-border operation because it stated that Khamenei had told Erdoğan that “Syria’s territorial integrity is crucial. A military attack on Syria would be harmful to Syria, harmful to Türkiye, and harmful to the region, and it would be to the benefit of the terrorists (khameini.ir, July 19).”
In light of Iran’s position, Ankara is trying to urge Moscow to join its side to balance against Tehran. In fact, Erdoğan’s meeting with Putin in Sochi just three weeks after the Tehran summit underpinned this objective. One of the topics high on the Turkish president’s agenda was the Syria issue. Following the meeting, the parties adopted a joint statement and “reaffirmed their determination to act in coordination and solidarity in the fight against all terrorist organizations (kremlin.ru, August 5).” A Turkish political analyst, Serhat Erkmen, claims that Türkiye can overcome Iran’s resistance by including the Syrian government’s forces in the equation in coordination with Russia and starting an operation in Tel Rifat (Habertürk, August 8). In other words, a bargain with Moscow can allow Bashar al-Assad’s forces to advance to the north, while Türkiye expands its control in Tel Rifat and then Manbij.
The tension between the West and Türkiye, meanwhile, has somewhat calmed in parallel with the Russian aggression in Ukraine. That war helped the West to recall Türkiye’s crucial role on Russia’s southern flank. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Ankara has played its cards pragmatically. It positioned itself at a safe distance from Moscow, while militarily assisting Kiev. Additionally, Ankara used Sweden and Finland’s bids for NATO membership as leverage to force these countries to revise their approaches toward the PKK as a terrorist organization (Terrorism Monitor, June 16). As a result, the West may be more accommodating of a Turkish operation in Tel Rifat or Manbij than if the war in Ukraine had not occurred.
In the past, international reactions shaped, but did not prevent, Türkiye’s cross-border operations in Syria. Currently, Türkiye endeavors to coordinate its steps with regional actors as well as with the U.S and Russia. It is difficult to determine whether Türkiye has a clear “green light” from any of these actors. However, the operational plans are off the shelf, and this time it is not only Turkish security concerns, but also international power balances and domestic political dynamics that are shaping the Turkish government’s position.