Turkey plans new military operation in Syria
Turkish pro-government media reported last week that preparations were underway for a new round of military operations in Syria. A parliamentary motion allowing the government to continue sending troops overseas was tabled last month and easily approved.
Previous motions approved a one-year term for such operations, but this time it was done for a two-year period. This may be because the government anticipates more difficult times ahead, when the term may not be renewed due to declining public support for the ruling party.
Turkey already has a strong military presence in four areas inside Syria: in the northwestern province of Afrin following Operation Olive Branch; the area of Operation Euphrates Shield at Al-Bab; territory east of the Euphrates captured in Operation Peace Spring; and several observation posts in Idlib. He is now considering three other areas: Manbij and Tell Rifaat in Aleppo Governorate, and other lands east of the Euphrates.
Although Turkey continues to keep an eye on Manbij, four parties would not be happy to see this city occupied by Turkey: the United States, Russia, the Syrian government and the Kurds. After Daesh’s resistance in Manbij collapsed in 2016, Turkey urged the United States to expel the Kurdish fighters from the city. Washington has repeatedly promised to respond to Turkey’s request but failed to do so as the main role in Daesh’s expulsion from the city was played by Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, who constitute the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the United States did not want to antagonize them. Turkey threatened to strike Kurdish fighters in March 2018, but had to abstain due to opposition from the United States and Russia.
The second area where Turkey wants to expand its control is Tell Rifaat, which is also controlled by Kurdish SDF fighters. Last Friday, Turkish media published a detailed report on anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines planted by SDF fighters on possible approaches for the Turkish military.
The third area is the corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border east of the Euphrates. Turkey initially planned to occupy a 40 km-wide corridor stretching from Tell Abyad to the Iraqi border, but this encountered strong objections from all sides. The Syrian government has said it will fight the Turkish army; NATO has offered to patrol the border instead; and then-US President Donald Trump sent a letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan using a tone never before seen in correspondence between heads of state – “don’t be a fool,” he said in the statement. letter.
Despite Ankara’s preparations, there is reason to believe that an operation may not be imminent.
Eventually, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in October 2019 to establish a 30 km wide security zone between Tell Abyad and Ras Al-Ain, watched over by Syrian and Russian soldiers. The rest of the corridor was to be reduced to 10 km and patrolled jointly by Turkish and Russian soldiers. This arrangement has worked more or less satisfactorily, but Turkey now wants to occupy two more strategically important points – Ain Issa and Tell Tamr – further south, where Kurdish SDF fighters control the oil wells.
Despite these preparations, there is reason to believe that such a military operation may not be imminent. One is the turbulent relations between Turkey and the United States. Erdogan met his American counterpart Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome last week. The two leaders listed the outstanding issues between them without necessarily trying to unravel them. The only concrete outcome of the meeting was the formation of a joint mechanism to discuss outstanding issues at the technical level.
On the way back from the summit, Erdogan used a moderate narrative in his briefing with reporters, which suggests he wants to avoid a confrontation with Washington, whether in Syria or elsewhere. In addition, the United States is putting strong pressure on Turkey to deactivate the S-400 air defense system it bought from Russia. The EU is also pressing Ankara on issues of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Another reason for caution is the attitude of the Syrian government. Damascus is in the process of reoccupying its seat in the Arab League. Its relations with the Gulf countries have also thawed and the international community has acquiesced in the idea of maintaining Bashar Assad’s presidency.
If Turkey conducts one or more of the military operations that appear to be on the agenda, it will likely aim to build popular support among nationalist segments of the electorate ahead of the next general election, which is scheduled for 2023. Governments sometimes make decisions that may contribute to their political survival but go against the national interests of their people.
- Yasar Yakis is a former Turkish Foreign Minister and a founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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