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Nov 23 2018

Turkey should weigh the pros and cons of operation east of Euphrates

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s frequent expressions of his willingness to launch a military operation east of the River Euphrates in Syria conveys his staunch opposition to the formation of a Kurdish entity in the region.

It is not yet clear whether such an operation will take place, but it does, it would involve either shelling Syrian Kurdish forces of the People's Protection Units (YPG) from Turkish territory, air strikes, sending Turkish troops into Syria, or a combination of all three. It is very likely that all these options are still on the table, and that the Turkish military is prepared for any one of them, but any such move would have international repercussions.

If such a military operation were to take place, the Turkish military, the second biggest army in NATO after the United States, would be taking action against a non-state group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The United States created SDF by adding local Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians, Chechens to the YPG to give the impression the organisation is not solely composed of Kurds. Colonel John Dorrian, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, noted during a press briefing that the SDF is a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian group. But the backbone of the force and its commanders are all members of the YPG.

Turkey would have no difficulty sending a military force large enough to defeat the SDF if it were its only rival east of the Euphrates. But this is more than a question of numbers.

The United States has 12 military bases and around 2,000 troops east of the Euphrates. U.S. forces are currently building an air defence infrastructure, probably the first step towards the creation of a no-fly zone and later an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria similar to that of northern Iraq.

Although the no-fly zone would be mainly aimed at protecting SDF fighters from air attacks by the Syrian government, it would also protect the region from the attacks coming from Turkey and pose a significant problem for Turkey in the longer term.

U.S. military aid to the SDF has been estimated to be around $3 billion, more than enough to build a strong defence infrastructure for the 30,000 square km it controls east of the Euphrates. U.S. officials have repeatedly and unequivocally voiced their objections to a Turkish military operation in this region. If the United States and Turkey cannot resolve this issue, forces from the two NATO allies might find themselves confronting each other or, at the very worst, clashing.

It is also difficult to predict how the Syrian government would react to a potential Turkish military action and might choose to fight against the Turkish army by cooperating with the SDF. If President Bashar Assad decides to side with the SDF, Turkey would not only have to fight the U.S.-backed SDF, but also the Russian-backed Syrian army. But the Syrian government would probably not like to see the SDF controlling the region in the medium to long-term as Assad considers SDF to be a puppet of Washington.

The ideal solution for this complicated equation is for Turkey and Syria to reach an agreement since they have many overlapping interests regarding the Kurds in Syria and try to find a joint way out of this crisis. Many experts in Turkey agree this is the only viable solution, yet the Turkish government is refusing to change its position to create enough goodwill with Damascus.

The Iranian government cannot be expected to look favourably towards the SDF, both because of its ties to the United States and because a Kurdish entity in northern Syria is against its national interests. But Iran's opposition to the SDF is not as strong as Turkey's. The SDF's ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) makes it a grave military threat to Turkey.

Another point that Turkey has to consider within the framework of assessing a military operation east of the Euphrates is its promises to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, repeated by many Turkish officials over the years and recorded in the documents of various international meetings. Therefore, once the crisis is resolved, Turkey is expected to withdraw from all Syrian territory, from the east of the Euphrates as well as from the west of it. The international community will probably force Turkey to do so. Once Turkey moves out, the Kurds will quickly move back to their current locations, or at least it will not be up to Turkey, but to the political will of the rulers in Damascus, to decide whether they will move back to their earlier positions.

Therefore, Turkey should weigh carefully the pros and cons of a military operation and unavoidable risks of military casualties and its financial cost, for the sake of supporting a Turkey –friendly team for a temporary period in the east of​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Euphrates.