Turkey’s operation into northern Syria harms national interest

Ankara clearly defines its national interest and main objective in northern Syria as crippling the political and military abilities of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish-led administrations that gained control of a large part of the country’s northeast.

Whether the operation will serve Turkey’s national interests in the long run depends on complicated regional and global dynamics that are far broader than the operation itself. Given these factors, Operation Peace Spring has the potential to backfire and actually work against Turkey’s main aims.

At the first level, Turkey’s military operation has damaged its standing in global public opinion, a key dynamic of international politics the significance of which the Turkish government has not grasped.

Until the SDF and other Kurdish groups joined the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), they were mostly seen as a pragmatic and pro-American ethnic group. Their role in the anti-ISIS campaign has boosted their image to the point that Kurds are now seen as freedom fighters by the larger Western public.

Turkey’s intervention has added a new dynamic to the already positive image of Kurds, especially in the Western media, with what was once seen as an ethnic group now presented as an oppressed nation under Turkey.

This is inimical to the public relations efforts by Ankara, which has spent decades making its case to the world about its fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, an outlawed group that has fought the Turkish state for Kurdish self-rule since 1984. The SDF and its affiliates in Syria have close links to the PKK.

There is little doubt that the balance of global public opinion on Turks and Kurds will have a negative effect on Turkey from now on.

Next comes the impact the operation has had on Turkey’s relations with its allies, partners and neighbours.

Many Western countries such as Germany and France quickly responded to Turkey’s offensive by halting arm sales. A more systematic embargo at the EU level is likely to also be on the cards for Turkey.

The case is not different in the Arab world. Strongly protesting Turkey’s operation, the Arab League portrayed the operation as invasion.

On the American front, despite a series of chaotic tweets from President Trump, there is a growing anti-Turkish coalition which unites Republicans and Democrats across Congress, and the American public tends increasingly to side with the Kurds. President Trump could well stop backing Erdoğan as he faces heightened pressure from Congress.

Russia’s position is no consolation for Turkey. In his earliest comments, Putin said that the Turkish operation could release thousands of ISIS fighters. The following day, he added that Syria must be freed from foreign military presence. Worse, there are strong indicators that Moscow is happy to benefit from the Turkish operation, and it has acted as a mediator to bring the Kurdish groups and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad closer.

Given that the Syrian crisis, including the status of the country’s Kurds, is a global problem which requires the intervention of foreign powers, Turkey’s recent operation is likely to deepen the differences between Turkey and other global actors.

But the main question is whether Turkey’s operation can achieve its objective and destroy Kurds’ political and military abilities in Northern Syria.

This will have much to do with the first serious consequence of Turkey’s operation – the SDF’s agreement with the Damascus regime. Logically, Damascus would not be happy to have Kurds with military autonomy. However, Damascus is likely to treat them also as a strategic asset against Turkey.

To underline, the most important strategic weapon that Assad has today against Turkey would involve granting Kurds any kind of autonomous political status, even with very limited rights. Such a move would also appease external powers such as Russia. Moscow had been unhappy with the Syrian Kurds’ relationship with Washington, and would prefer a balanced way between Damascus and Kurds which might give rise to limited autonomy.

This raises an obvious irony of Turkey’s foreign policy towards: Though Turkey initially set out to topple the Assad regime, its latest policy steps are helping the Syrian president consolidate his regime. And, there may be yet another irony: Turkey’s policy aim of crippling Kurds’ rights in Syria could result instead in Kurdish autonomy.

It is impossible to say that Ankara's strategy in the military operation would help Turkey’s interest in the long term. So, what was Ankara’s intention?

Its calculation on the Kurdish issue is simple: The problem is seen by Ankara as insoluble in the short-term. Thus, it is tactically employing the fight against pro-PKK Kurds’ political and military acquisitions in Turkey and abroad. In this sense, the Syrian operation is not a decisive battle, but the latest move in a decades-long conflict.