Can Turkey still make military gains without alienating its new friends?

Ankara has had a good diplomatic run this year, but its Syrian challenges haven't gone anywhere

Turkish soldiers keep watch along a motorway in northern Syria. AFP
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One could be forgiven for thinking Turkey had put its military adventurism in the rearview.

In the latter years of the previous decade, Ankara launched not one or two incursions into Syria, but three, gaining control of sizeable swathes of territory each time. Turkey also sent ground forces into Iraq, dispatched drones and military advisers to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh and established a military base in Qatar, and an even larger one in Somalia. Turkish naval vessels menaced Italian and French ships in the Mediterranean, underscoring the ruling AKP’s ambitious Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, policy.

But in the past two years, amid a deepening economic crisis, Ankara had taken a softer stance while endeavouring to renew ties with the US and EU, Armenia, Egypt, Israel and Gulf states. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his French counterpart and longtime foil, Emanuel Macron, even became semi-friendly.

Then last month, with the world’s eyes on Ukraine, Turkey launched a ground offensive into northern Iraq, targeting the mountain redoubts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency in south-eastern Turkey since the 1980s and is labelled a terror group by Turkey, the US and the EU.

Mr Erdogan upped the ante last week with talk of yet another Syria offensive. The “why” is no secret: to establish a long-promised 30-kilometre-wide safe zone to host returning refugees; and to push the US-aligned, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara views as part of the PKK, back from Turkey’s border.

The “why now” is more complex. One reason may be the obvious distraction of the war in Ukraine. Another may be to test the resolve of the West’s alliance with the SDF, which is focused on fighting the remnants of ISIS. In 2019, when Turkey first moved into north-eastern Syria, then president Donald Trump pulled US forces from the area in what many viewed as a betrayal of the Kurdish fighters who had played a key role in ISIS’s defeat.

This time around, the US has warned that another invasion would “undermine regional security” – but seems willing to turn a blind eye. Western ties with Kurdish militants have come under scrutiny of late as Turkey has pressed Sweden to end its support of Kurdish groups, including the SDF, in order to approve its Nato bid.

Talks on this issue in Ankara last week did not go well, as Sweden appeared to hold its ground. It didn’t help that Turkish security forces said they found a Swedish-made anti-tank weapon in a PKK hideout in northern Iraq.

Ankara may be hoping that its Nato allies refrain from criticising this latest incursion in the hopes of encouraging Turkey to rubber-stamp the entry of Sweden and Finland before the bloc’s late June summit. Turkey may also be subtly sending a message to the EU: either send us more money to finance our hosting of 4 million refugees or let us carve out this safe zone.

The EU might in response ask “Where?”, as the Turkish leader revealed few details. In 2018, Mr Erdogan spoke of taking control of Tal Rifaat, a Kurdish-controlled area of north-western Syria. And pro-government Turkish outlets recently reported on a quarter of million displaced residents of that area who hoped to soon return to their homes.

But Ankara may prefer a path of reduced resistance. Whether or not Russia has lost 30,000 troops since its late February invasion, as Ukraine asserts, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to the conflict, which has intensified in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.

To replenish forces there, Moscow has pulled large numbers of troops out of northern Syria, including from key locations alongside the SDF in Manbij and Kobani. The way has essentially been cleared for the Turkish military in areas abutting territory it took from the SDF three years ago. And unlike last time, when the nationalist fervour had little political use at home, Turkey is now just a year out from presidential and parliamentary elections.

Anti-PKK offensives tend to give the ruling AKP a political boost, as in 2015 when a brutal surge in the south-east shaped the electoral outcome. The retaking of Kobani, a symbol of Kurdish pride since 2015, is likely to go down particularly well with voters, as would securing a safe zone that could house up to 2 million returning refugees.

What’s more, removing the SDF from the Manbij-Kobani corridor was part of their Sochi agreement, so Moscow may have quietly approved Turkey’s planned incursion, as a thank you to Mr Erdogan for holding up the Nato entry of Sweden and Finland.

Still, Turkey may be heading into choppy political seas. Iraq has been pushing back more strongly against Ankara this time around, with officials saying Turkey violated its sovereignty. In inching perilously close to occupying bits of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey may have prodded Baghdad to draw a line.

More to the point, Arab states have in recent months hinted at welcoming Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, largely marginalised for the past decade, back into the diplomatic fold. If Damascus is again a sovereign and accepted Arab voice, we might expect some regional pushback to Turkey willfully invading its southern neighbour to grab a chunk of its territory.

Finally, the West only has so much patience. Last week in The Wall Street Journal, two former US senators argued that Nato’s by-laws should be amended to allow for Turkey’s expulsion, citing Ankara’s stance on Kurds as a key reason.

Turkey has generated no small amount of international goodwill this year, with its multi-pronged rapprochement, significant military support for Ukraine, and continued hosting of millions of refugees, despite rising xenophobia, just as Europe is overwhelmed by 6 million arriving Ukrainians.

But another Syria offensive – particularly one with brutal consequences for Syrian Kurds – risks putting Turkey’s accounts with western powers in the red, just when Ankara could really use some friends.

Published: May 31, 2022, 4:00 AM