Turkey flexes naval muscles, ramps up northeast Syria threats

Turkey’s media since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s return from the United Nation General Assembly last week has continued amplifying the government’s military rhetoric with sabre rattling on northeast Syria and a display of naval might.

This column last week noted that Turkey’s threats to launch an operation against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militias across its southern border had died down as Erdoğan unsuccessfully sought a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York.

But it was premature to predict that the Turkish operation would not go ahead. After a meeting with the National Security Council on Monday, Erdoğan repeated his disappointment with progress on the planned safe zone and spoke of his intention to send an invasion force against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their allies.

Erdoğan and other Turkish officials continued to ramp up the rhetoric over the week, leading the Pentagon to express grave concerns on Thursday.

The Turkish president had by Saturday guaranteed that a military operation would take place “as soon as today or tomorrow.”

As the threats mounted on Friday, U.S. troops filmed their third joint patrol with their Turkish counterparts, uploading footage demonstrating that YPG fortifications had been demolished.

The next day, high-level U.S. and Turkish officials discussed accelerating the safe zone plans, and hours after Erdoğan’s renewed threat, the U.S. Central Command Europe shared a social media post lauding the “concrete steps” taken to address Turkey’s security concerns.

The U.S. attempts to reassure its Turkish partners over the progress of the safe zone project have not appeared particularly robust, and this could, as analyst Aaron Stein has pointed out, be down to a basic strategic disconnect between the two sides.

There does not seem to be much room for compromise over the safe zone, with Turkey not budging from its demand for an area that stretches up to 32 km south of its border. Washington at this point appears to be playing for time in a process that cannot meet those demands.

One of the first responses to the heightened threats from Ankara, published in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, said a Turkish incursion could spur the Trump administration to fully withdraw the 1,000 or so troops stationed in Syria.

The aim of this response was not debatable, since it would appear to play into Erdoğan’s hands, and would thus be no deterrent to an invasion.

The U.S. military may be banking on Turkey’s desire for an orderly U.S. withdrawal that would allow it to expand into northeast Syria at its own pace. A sudden U.S. exit would leave a vacuum that could see the YPG make a deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad, as was threatened late last year, after Trump announced his troop withdrawal and a Turkish invasion seemed imminent.

At this point, Washington appears to be without a solution that will satisfy Turkey, and Erdoğan has pressed the point home that an operation will take place. A prudent course predicted by one analyst in Washington would see a limited incursion into an area of the northeast already evacuated by the YPG.

That this would be delivered with “maximum publicity” to the domestic audience in Turkey, as the analyst suggested, is a given.

Aside from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s sliding popularity with voters amid serious economic difficulties this year, Erdoğan has been dealing this year with dissent from within his own party, with the president’s lack of tolerance for criticism frequently cited in press reports as a main factor motivating defections.

Displays of military might are one way Erdoğan’s government can seek to rally public support. Besides northeast Syria, Ankara’s firm stance on simmering disputes in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas has been useful in this respect, experts say, particularly in reassuring the publics fears that purges after the 2016 coup attempt had diminished the navy’s capabilities.

The large strides made by Turkey’s defence sector under the AKP can serve a similar purpose, as the fanfare among pro-government newspapers this week over the commissioning of a new indigenous ADA-class corvette, the Kınalıada, demonstrated.

Having passed its sea trials, the warship was fully commissioned on Sept. 29, strengthening Turkish naval power, but also the government’s claim to be restoring Turkey’s regional might. Four pro-government newspapers led with variations on the same headline on front pages the next day: “the sleeping giant has woken.”