Yaşar Yakış
Oct 11 2019

Turkey’s ‘D Day’ in Syria

The military operation dubbed “Peace Spring” that Turkey was planning in Syria started on Wednesday with “softening” attacks on 181 pre-designated targets by F-16 fighter aircraft and artillery shells. Land forces began moving after dark. A day before, border crossing points between Syria and Iraq were destroyed by Turkish air strikes to prevent reinforcement and supplies from Iraq.

Preparations for the operation accelerated when the Turkish and U.S. military set up a joint headquarters in Turkey’s border town of Akçakale a month ago to establish jointly patrolled safe zones in northeast Syria. Several joint aerial and land patrols were carried out and one or two shelters built to protect the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were destroyed on Turkey’s request. Despite the appearance of cooperation, the Turkish side believed the United States was using these as tactics to delay Turkey’s military operation as long as possible.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thought that he should carry the message directly to U.S. President Donald Trump and tell him that Turkey’s patience was wearing thin. He phoned Trump on Oct. 5, and after exchanging views on various aspects of economic cooperation, Erdoğan said Turkey was moving its troops into Syria. This detail gives the impression that Erdoğan started the conversation with economic cooperation as a sweetener for the bitter pill.

According to the New York Times, Trump did not object to Turkey’s military action, but told Erdoğan that Islamic State terrorists detained by the YPG would now be Turkey’s responsibility. He later announced that the United States was now pulling its 50 or so soldiers from the area where Turkey planned to carry out its military operation.

Probably due to the reaction from various centres in the United States, Trump re-adjusted his position and issued another tweet, saying: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey”.

Erdoğan is a leader who can take risks, but during his conversation with Trump, they may have agreed on certain red lines or Erdoğan may have used his political common sense to gauge Trump’s potential reactions. He took the risk and announced the beginning of the operation.

Now the die is cast. Militarily speaking, the Turkish army –the second biggest in NATO after the United States - is not likely to lose the battle. It will extensively use the support of soldiers from the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Various factions of Turkey-supported FSA operating in various parts of northern Syria merged last week in the Turkish province of Şanlıurfa under the name of the National Army (Jaish al-Watani). The performance of these units demonstrated that they have several shortcomings with regards to training and discipline. But this time they will probably be under closer supervision from the Turkish army. 

Turkey’s declared plan is, first, to occupy a 120-km long and 30 to 40-km deep belt between the northeastern Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Whether the occupation will be extended to 460 km all the way to the Iraqi border is as yet unclear. It will be determined according to the resistance put up by the YPG. After clearing the area of the YPG, Erdoğan plans to build houses for millions of Syrians that will be repatriated from Turkey.

The first belt that was agreed with the United States in the Akçakale joint headquarter was seven to 10 km wide, but now that the U.S. soldiers have been withdrawn, the agreement may no longer be considered valid. A more important factor will be the YPG resistance.

After being betrayed by the United States, the Kurds may now turn to Damascus and seek its support. If they agree, the Syrian government may integrate Kurdish forces into the Syrian army. This would create an additional difficulty for Turkey, because it will be fighting with the Russia-supported Syrian army on Syrian territory.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.