There has been much speculation about an imminent Turkish intervention in north Syria – the fifth in a row.
The rationale behind such a move would be threefold:
- The Kurdish threat
- Electoral tactics (which might backfire)
- Revisionist plans-strategic leverage regarding Syria’s future
Can Turkey go ahead? The short answers is “yes”. The long answer is “it’s complicated”.
If previous interventions are any indication, two things we know. First Turkey prepares the ground diplomatically and second, it remains flexible during operations, negotiating the outcome. A Turkish intervention would most likely mean that Ankara got the “green light” from Russia and/or the United States. A move west of the Euphrates would mostly need Russia’s approval; for an operation east of Euphrates, Turkey would need both the Russians and Americans.
In exchange, Turkey would have to compromise vis-a-vis its ideal objectives. What are the ideal objectives then?
The ideal scenario would have two dimensions: one to the west, close to Euphrates (see map below), and one to the east of Peace Spring territories in eastern Syria (see second map). The ideal objective regarding the former would be for Turkey to finish what it started in 2019, namely to expand the Turkey-controlled territories along the M4 highway to the west; capture Kobani, cross the Euphrates river, capture Manbij and unite the Peace Spring territories (in blue color) and Euphrates Shield (in green color) territories: that is, to clear out any Kurdish forces from the Turkish border and west of Euphrates. That would radically diminish the prospects of a Kurdish statelet on the border including its prospects for an exit to the Mediterranean – anyway an overly ambitious Kurdish aspiration.
The second dimension has the same logic but concerns the northeastern border of Syria. In this case, Ankara would want to seal the border from Ras-al Ain all the way to Malikiyah. This would essentially cut off any support to YPG coming from Iraq, Syria, Turkey (perhaps even Iran). Turkish forces stationed in northern Iraq could support such an operation.
However both fronts pose significant challenges. Provided that Turkey received the go-ahead from Russia and the US in principle, Kobani and Manbij would still be very difficult to capture. The former in particular is of great symbolic as well as strategic significance. In the east, Qamishli has a similar importance and value, with both Kurdish and pro-Assad forces in the area. Not to mention pro-Iran forces, the Russian as well as American presence.
For these reasons the risks are high for Turkey.
In addition to their own interests and concerns, the Kurdish and Assad elements (seen as proxies) cannot leave US and Russia entirely indifferent.
After all, previous Turkish interventions have demonstrated not only their defensive but also revisionist character and their pursuit of influence consolidation.
So what can the outcome be? Two scenarios stand out:
- To have an agreed upon limited intervention (way off Turkey’s ideal objectives)
- To convince Turkey not to proceed with an intervention in exchange for some deal with the Kurds and Assad. For example, some Kurdish units could withdraw from certain border areas ceding control to Assad. In these scenarios, the old Russian-Turkish formula of joint patrols could also be applied.
There’s of course the possibility of (a) no intervention at all and (b) an irrational, large-scale intervention that would disregard the aforementioned constraints. However, these do not seem the most likely scenarios. It seems that, under Erdogan, a new move in Syria is a matter of time, one way or another.
Whether that will help him in the elections (if it happens in the next 1-2 years) is not certain. Right now, domestic instability and polarization do not really play in his favor. The main opposition party, CHP, is already against the prospect. Yet an intervention could help divide the opposition which is already struggling to create a united platform against Erdogan for the upcoming elections.
By Zenonas Tziarras