Be careful what you wish for, Turkey
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria has largely been interpreted as a victory for Turkey. Turkish officials have long complained about U.S. protection for Syrian Kurds, and Washington’s move surely eases the way for Turkey’s planned military operation to the east of the River Euphrates.
Yet what has been largely overlooked are the significant long-term risks. Turkey remains the principal patron of Syrian rebel groups in northwest Syria. Thus, it stands to reason that an emboldened Syrian government might want to support Syrian Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) against Turkish expansion.
Moscow has allowed Turkish military activity in the Idlib region as part of a long-term strategy to win Syria’s western cities first, and turn to Idlib only after consolidating power.
Now, in Idlib, the clock is ticking against Turkey, which is still struggling to eradicate al-Qaeda-backed extremists. With the support of Russia, and the acquiescence of the United States, President Bashar Assad will be more forceful in demanding Turkish forces retreat from Idlib.
Although the Syrian army is battle-weary, there is agreement between Damascus and Moscow to address the jihadist threat, especially the Chechen and north Caucasian militants, in Idlib. Turkey’s insistence on protecting Idlib, may thus further encourage a link between Assad and the YPG. The bad news for Ankara is that in the case of complete U.S. abandonment, YPG would not hesitate to ask Moscow for help, and the Russians would likely step up.
Further complicating the issue are the Pentagon’s plans to ensure YPG preservation of American arms, including anti-tank missiles, armoured vehicles, and mortars. In the case that Trump approves his generals’ recommendation, Ankara-Washington relations will be strained again and Turkish military plans to launch initial offensives against the YPG-held Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Kobani will be complicated. Such scenarios appear to be more likely as Trump’s response to heavy criticism for of his withdrawal decision was reconciliatory with a promise of “protection of Kurdish allies”.
In this case, potential U.S.-Turkey intelligence sharing against the YPG is highly doubtful. Even if Turkey were to secure some strategic outposts in east of the Euphrates, YPG-Turkey distaste would likely blossom into a low-intensity conflict and become entangled with operations by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within Turkish borders. A Turkish buffer zone in northern Syria is hardly a remedy for Turkey’s security concerns because the PKK insurgency, which Turkey has fought for decades, has deep roots. And Ankara’s recent mass arrests of Kurdish politicians have merely made the PKK’s radical flank the champion of Kurdish resistance.
In evaluating the long-term prospects, Turkey’s domestic dynamics will be important to watch. A low-intensity conflict with the PKK, labelled a terrorist group by the United States and the EU, was the primary reason behind Turkish military tutelage during the 1990s.
The Syrian civil war and ensuing Turkish military operations have benefited Erdoğan’s power consolidation, yet a long-term commitment to rule Syrian territory and protect from YPG attacks may not be good news for the ruling party. In fact, further securitisation/militarisation would risk disturbing civilian control over the military, especially when Turkish economic prospects are not bright. Given that the Turkish armed forces are already overstretched from northern Iraq to western Syria, a long-term commitment in Syria may result in unforeseen consequences.
Turkey’s trajectory in Syria is remarkable. Erdoğan’s support of the Syrian Islamist opposition has reverted to the Turkish nationalist axis of targeting Syrian Kurds. This policy has helped Erdoğan secure the support of conservative nationalists as well as secular-nationalist groups.
Thus far, Turkey’s use of Syrian rebels against the YPG in northwest Syria does not pose a challenge to Erdoğan’s alliance with Turkish nationalists. Yet, the question of Idlib’s future under Turkish protection may drive a wedge between them.
Turkey now needs to learn how to live with the jihadists. Supporting them will increase the risk of an Assad-YPG backlash and increase more criticism from the Turkish nationalists. Opposing jihadists on the other hand invites domestic security risks and potential terrorist plots.
Moreover, mobilising Syrian rebel groups east of the Euphrates will not be easy and worse, Turkey cannot rely on these units to establish stable local governance.
In a recent sermon, a leading cleric for al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) declared that participating in a Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurds was not only haram - religiously forbidden - but also futile “while Aleppo, Homs, and Hama are crying for help”.
Relations between HTS and Turkey are already tense due to Turkish intelligence efforts to marginalise al-Qaeda-linked groups, but the cleric’s call may resonate among some disenchanted Syrian rebels: if there is nothing substantial in return, why fight?