Turkey intervenes in Syria under the umbrella of Russia
On 24 August, Turkey launched a military operation (‘Euphrates Shield’) into the territory of Syria, officially using land forces (special forces and tanks) for the first time, in addition to shelling and airstrikes. The targets of the attacks are the forces of Islamic State in the area of Jarabulus, and in the long run, also the forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria. Ankara’s broader plan is to rebuild its influence in northern Syria (the security zone concept), and above all to neutralise the Syrian Kurds’ para-state in the region. The operation against Islamic State has political and military (air) support from the United States.
Although Turkey’s objectives with regard to Syria remain essentially unchanged, the conditions under which Ankara is implementing them are fundamentally new. In contrast to before, Turkey’s actions are being carried out in collaboration with Russia, not against it; their rivalry had lasted from the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011 and in 2015 Russia had effectively pushed Turkey out of Syria, including preventing any Turkish sorties. The current state of affairs represents a thorough revision of Ankara’s (and to a lesser extent Moscow’s) policy, as does the reconciliation between the two countries in June, as well as their dynamically developing cooperation in recent weeks on the Syrian question. This is changing the balance of forces in the conflict (Islamic State is becoming ever weaker; the Kurds may be marginalised), and both parties have the ambition to push through their own plans to settle the conflict. For the time being, this favours Western (mainly US) plans to destroy Islamic State in Syria; at the same time, however, it foreshadows a further increase in tension around strategic issues between Turkey and the US & NATO.
The Turkish forces are working in collaboration with the Free Syrian Army, which Ankara has habitually supported. The impulse to act came from another spectacular terrorist attack organised by Islamic State in Turkey (54 people were killed in Gaziantep on 21 August). The aim of the present action is to take over the areas Islamic State controls around Jarabulus, and subsequently to create a ‘humanitarian corridor’ whose area would coincide with the ‘safety zone’ between Jarabulus and Azaz consistently advocated by Turkey, which runs along the strategic Syrian-Turkish border area. According to Turkish press speculation, this is part of a Turkish-Russian plan (the zone would be jointly managed) and the first stage of resolving the conflict in Syria, perhaps based on a federalist variant, which could preserve the dominance of Assad or his entourage. In this way Turkey would have attained its minimum objectives in Syria – the creation of a buffer zone controlled by pro-Turkish Sunni Arab forces.
The latest operation is also connected with another problem – one of fundamental importance for Turkey: the Kurdish para-state in northern Syria (Rojava), which Ankara sees as an existential threat to the stability and integrity of Turkey itself. Rojava is controlled by the PYD, a branch of the PKK, with which Turkey has been at war for more than 30 years. Benevolent neutrality on the part of the Syrian regime, as well as independent support from both the United States and Russia, has allowed Rojava to develop, mainly at the expense of Islamic State; and after Kurdish forces took the city of Manbij on 12 August, the PYD is now close to consolidating the areas in Syria under its control (Rojava and Afrin). The aim of the current Turkish operation is to block this process, and then to create an anti-Kurdish buffer (safety zone) in Syria, and ultimately to eliminate the Kurdish ability to act independently on the territory of Syria.
A U-turn in Turkey’s Syrian policy
For the duration of the Syrian conflict, Turkey had spoken harshly against the regime in Damascus, which is sponsored by Iran and Russia, and also – despite all the problems involved – coordinated its policy with the United States and NATO. The Russian intervention in Syria (September 2015) and the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft over Turkey (November 2015) marked the peak of the confrontation, a battle which Ankara lost: Russia successfully attacked Turkey’s clients in Syria and blocked any possibility of Turkey supporting them (including airstrikes).
Ankara not only failed to receive the US support it had expected, but was forced to participate in the aid which Washington gave the Kurds. After many months, in June Ankara managed to improve relations with Moscow, which in recent weeks have entered into a phase of intensive cooperation (for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Russia on 9 August, and President Putin has announced he will visit Turkey on 31 August). Ankara has also moved closer to Iran (examples include visits by the respective foreign ministers, and Erdoğan's planned visit to Tehran on 24 August). Another sign of the changes was the appointment of a tripartite coordination group on Syria, which includes diplomats, military officials and representatives of the intelligence services. This has prepared the ground for a radical shift in Turkish policy, namely an attempt to implement the strategic objectives of its security policy in cooperation with its former rivals.
As a result – and Euphrates Shield is a noteworthy example of this – Turkey is regaining its ability to act in Syria (hitherto it had not dared to launch any land operations for several years), although it is proceeding as the weaker partner, one which is dependent on Russia. Moscow, in turn, has achieved a strategic success, namely the possibility of harnessing Turkey into its projects for the Middle East, while at the same time encouraging a strategic separation between Ankara and Washington, and finally reducing its existing cumbersome dependence on Iran. For the US, Turkey’s current actions are entirely beneficial, as Washington’s essential objective is the liquidation of Islamic State. However, over the coming months, these moves will have both positive consequences (by postponing the need to increase direct US involvement in Syria, and throwing the burden onto Turkey and Russia) as well as negative ones (an expected increase in tensions in Turkish-American relations, and a weakened political position in Syria, and potentially the Middle East as a whole). For Iran, Turkey’s entry into Syria is a powerful blow in its rivalry with Turkey over the Middle East, but Tehran does not have the ability to counter-react with any speed.
The consequences for Syria
The revision of Turkey’s policy towards Syria and its primary phase of implementation will have a huge impact on the conflict. In the short term, these moves will further undermine and eventually liquidate Islamic State; they also offer an opportunity to strengthen the moderate Sunni opposition in Syria. Turkey’s entry into Syria, together with the revision of Ankara’s relationship with Moscow (and, indirectly, with the Assad regime) should not only block the strengthening of Rojava, but also lead to its eventual liquidation; on 19 August, for the first time, Turkish forces bombarded Kurdish positions in Hasakah, which may foreshadow measures to eliminate the Rojava para-state. The gradual creation of a pro-Turkish Sunni area in northern Syria while Turkey fights Islamic State is a harbinger of a serious and turbulent shakeup within the Sunni opposition, with a view to its ultimate re-consolidation.
Turkey’s U-turn in its Syrian policy is part of the enormous dynamic tension and developments within Turkey itself (including the failed coup of 15 July and its consequences; the government’s authoritarian tendencies; the harsh conflict with the PKK within Turkey; a jump in terrorist threats from both Muslim radicals and Kurds) and in its neighbourhood (growing frustration at the feeling of impotence regarding the crisis in the Middle East; rising tensions with the US and the EU). In accordance with past practice, Ankara's response to the crisis is to escape by moving forward (escalating and attempting to manage the crisis) and being open to political U-turns. Ankara’s policy has thus moved to a new level of dynamism and unpredictability. For example, the question regarding the scale of the commitment of Turkish forces to retake Mosul in Iraq from the hands of Islamic State is now open.
The situation around the Syrian conflict has now been fundamentally changed. It is now Russia, not the United States, which has become the main reference point in Middle Eastern policy. It is entirely impossible to predict how long these changes will last, especially at the level of the relationships between Ankara, Moscow, Washington and Tehran. However, there is no doubt that the hesitant ‘balance’ of the past has now been disturbed. The immediate result will be a further increase in tensions between Turkey and the West, although it seems unlikely that their strategic relationship will be completely broken off.