Will Turkey live up to its threat to invade Syrian Kurdistan?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased his threats to once again attack the People's Protection Units (YPG), saying Turkey will launch another cross-border operation aimed at uprooting the Syrian Kurdish group from the territories it controls east of the River Euphrates. 

While Erdoğan said he would delay the operation on Dec. 21, he remains adamant that Ankara will make no compromises with the YPG, a key concession U.S. officials are trying to extract from Turkey before withdrawing. In Syria the U.S. has supported the YPG, and the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition of which that group is an integral part, against Islamic State for the last four years. 

Turkey views the YPG, and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as an inextricable part of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) it has been fighting in southeast Turkey for more than three decades.

Analysts believe Erdoğan’s threats should be taken very seriously.   

“I always take Erdoğan seriously,” Aaron Stein, the Director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told Ahval

“The question is how he could invade,” he said. “That would have to come through a deal with Moscow, which will want to use the Turkish pressure as a means to force the SDF to accept the return of the Syrian regime to its territories.”

“I don't know what the U.S. is offering Ankara for accepting a longer timeline for withdrawal or how long the U.S. timeline actually is,” said Professor Joshua Landis, a noted Syria expert and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. 

He said U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton seemed to want to draw out the withdrawal indefinitely. But much will depend on the length of the U.S. timeline. If the U.S. is trying to stall, Erdoğan is likely to escalate and threaten to invade,” he said

“When he escalated the last time, he got a phone call with President Trump that went very well for him,” Landis noted, referring to the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders which was reported to have motivated Trump's decision to announce the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria less than a week later.

“Erdoğan is likely to try this strategy again,” Landis concluded. “It's clear that Trump is unhappy with his foreign policy principals for rowing back his withdrawal policy.” 

Ceng Sagnic, the coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Programme at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies, also believes there is more to Erdoğan’s threats than mere rhetoric. 

“Erdoğan will, indeed, try to live up to his and his government's vow to launch cross-border incursions into SDF-controlled territories given that his government uses highly nationalistic and anti-Western rhetoric to consolidate Islamist and ultra-nationalist Turks,” Sagnic said. 

But an actual operation would likely prove enormously challenging for Turkey, despite its military's many advantages over the SDF/YPG.  

“The PYD has a strong incentive to invite Syrian regime forces to hinder or limit an incursion,” said Güneş Murat Tezcür, the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida. “In that case, Russia's position may be less amenable to Turkey, unlike its decision to give the green light to Turkish air strikes in Afrin a year ago.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a news conference following their talks in Sochi, Russia September 17, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/ via REUTERS

Turkey captured the small northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin from the YPG in March 2018 with Russian acquiescence. 

Russia's approval, or at the very least acquiescence, is extremely important for the success of any Turkish operation against the YPG in northeast Syria, possibly even more so than that of the United States since Moscow could dissuade Damascus from resisting it and keep Syrian airspace open as it has done in the past. 

“Turkey will have to take into account what Russia and the regime intend to do with the Syrian Kurds,” Stein said. “For all of the rhetoric, Russia can hinder or enable Turkish military operations in Syria, and with Idlib in shambles, Moscow may not be in a giving mood.” 

Turkey established a total of 12 observation posts manned by its army in Syria's Idlib province between October 2017 and May 2018 under the framework of the Astana Protocol with Russia and Iran. As part of the September 2018 deal made with Moscow to stave off a Syrian regime offensive there Turkey agreed to take steps to combat the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham jihadists that occupy most of that strategically important northwestern province. 

But HTS is still able to wage offensives and has captured dozens of villages in the last week. On Jan. 10 the Turkish-backed National Liberation Force (NLF), Turkey's Syrian proxy tasked with helping its efforts to contain HTS, made a deal with the jihadists that allows them to takeover even more of Idlib. 

This has fuelled some speculation that Turkey may be effectively manoeuvring to give the Syrian government an opening to launch an offensive into Idlib in return for Damascus turning a blind eye to a Turkish operation against the YPG

“Turkey did not do that,” Stein said. “I have no idea what will happen in Idlib, but the agreement with Russia is much bigger than HTS, or the observation posts.” 

“Basically this is a political decision at this point,” he said. “I don't think the HTS takeover changes much for Turkey, and it is up to Russia when and if it chooses to make a stink about this.”

Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based Middle East Researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, said the developments “reinforce Russia's proposals for closer cooperation between Syrian government and Turkey”. 

“With Turkish observation posts being inside the terrorist-held territories and increasing complicated logistics, the Turkish government will be under greater domestic pressure to open dialogue with Damascus,” he said. 

“Moscow is becoming more inclined to use the Idlib deadlock as a Damocles' sword on Turkey's own security during the bargaining process with Ankara on the east of the Euphrates,” said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Russian and Turkish affairs. 

He believes successful negotiations between the United States and Russia, along with an agreement between Damascus and the Kurds, would mean that, “Ankara will not have any valid reason for launching a new military incursion”.

On the other hand, he anticipates that if such “talks end in deadlock, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops is just adjournment sine die, then the Russian side may aim to drive a wedge between Turkey and the U.S. by giving Turkey a 'green light' for the use of Syrian airspace and even encouraging a Turkish military operation to an extent that may trigger a deep security crisis in Turkish-American relations on the ground.” 

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