The war in Ukraine has weakened Russia’s power to dissuade Turkey from launching military operations in northern Syria, experts warned, after Ankara blamed a deadly bombing in Istanbul on Kurdish militants.
Turkey has accused the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) of the bombing in the heart of Istanbul Sunday night that killed six people, including two children, and wounded 80. Officials on Tuesday said Turkey would carry out operations in Syria against Kurdish forces.
While the PKK has waged an insurgency against Turkey for decades, it has denied carrying out the attack, responsibility for which has yet to be claimed by any group.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish Interior Ministry Suleyman Soylu said the suspect had been trained in Syria's Afrin region, a part of the country controlled by Turkish soldiers and a patchwork of opposition, extremist and allied Syrian militias trained by Ankara.
They said the attack was ordered from Kobani, a Syrian-Turkish town under the control of Syria's Kurdish authorities.
"Syria is a national security problem for Turkey," an unnamed official told Reuters on Tuesday, saying targets were being prepared.
However, experts warn that such military forays into Syria do little to improve domestic security in Turkey.
“Turkey has a security problem which has no immediate or long-term solution,” said Danny Makki, an analyst with the Middle East Institute.
Turkey's Syrian quagmire
“The closest Ankara can get to a legitimate victory condition is a military success over a prolonged period in Syria, but even then suspected lone-wolf attacks and infiltrations will only increase in retaliation. While strikes may eliminate certain targets, the long-term play in northern Syria is a political one and isolating Kurdish groups may prove more effective than military aggression,” Mr Makki said.
Turkey has carried out three major military incursions since 2016 into northern Syria to drive back Kurdish forces from its borders.
The Turkish state has been waging a war against the PKK, formed as a Kurdish separatist organisation in 1978, for decades. The militant group, blacklisted as a terrorist group by the European Union, Turkey and the United States, has not stopped its ultraviolent methods despite its shifting political stance, and the group stands accused of assassinations and car bombings in public areas.
In Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, comprising largely of fighters from Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) which Turkey regards as an extension of the PKK, controls much of the north-east and receives US co-operation in the fight against ISIS. But it has also mended ties with Damascus to try to deter Turkey from encroaching.
Russia's Syria drawdown
Russia, Mr Makki pointed out, has previously persuaded Turkey to call off planned offensives against Kurdish forces, mindful of Syrian considerations about continuing Turkish occupation in the north.
But now that Moscow is consumed with the war in Ukraine and has reduced its footprint in Syria, it may not be able to hold Ankara back. Others say a deal between Russia, Turkey and Syria could allow for a limited attack.
“Both the explosion in Istanbul and the Russian quagmire in Ukraine provide President Erdogan with the perfect excuse to launch a limited military operation in northern Syria,” Mr Makki said.
“Given the lack of Russian will to divert resources and attention from the Ukrainian front, resistance from Moscow and Syria will be minimal, especially if the incursion is limited to Manbij and Tel Rifaat."
But other experts tell The National that although Russia may be less committed militarily in Syria this time, Ankara will still have to mount a delicate diplomatic campaign in the face of continued Moscow-Damascus co-operation. Meanwhile, Washington is also closely monitoring the situation to protect allied Kurdish forces and its own soldiers in the area.
Previous rounds of fighting in Syria strained US relations with Nato-ally Turkey as Washington supports the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia force largely made up of Kurdish fighters who helped recapture land held by ISIS. There are still US troops on the ground in Syria with Kurdish forces.
"Ultimately an incursion will need some kind of green light from one of the other foreign actors on the ground in Syria, in this case most likely Russia," said Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, a researcher with Castlereagh Associates, a consultancy focused on the Middle East.
"I don't see that forthcoming unless some arrangement is made that somehow benefits the Syrian government."
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has strongly objected to Turkey's presence in northern Syria but Mr Makki points out that Damascus is keen to mend fences with regional countries and therefore they may not protest against such an offensive.
“The Syrian government has long been eyeing up a potential rapprochement with Turkey and won't be highly invested in a potential confrontation which would only delay a repair of ties between Damascus and Ankara,” he claimed.
In each Turkish operation — 2016, 2018 and 2019 — the goals have differed slightly, from militarily damaging Syrian-Kurdish groups to occupying autonomous Kurdish areas that emerged during the Syrian civil war and to a lesser extent, fighting ISIS.
But each time, Ankara has moved deeper into the complex Syrian crisis with little sign of political resolution.
The picture is complex, however. Russia is the major military power in Syria still — despite a drawdown of forces and assets in the Ukraine war — and the Kurdish authorities in the north-east have made a deal to work with the government in Damascus despite still hosting some US forces there in the fight against ISIS.
But Fabrice Balanche, director of the Research Group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East, points out that Ankara has long had its sights on the area around Kobani to link territory it has already taken by force along the Syria-Turkey border and it has been waiting for the right time.
"Ankara has prepared the intervention for a long time. Ankara bargains with Russia — Kobani in exchange for a part of Idlib, for instance. Damascus is not important in the negotiations because Bashar has to follow Moscow's orders. Kobani is the land bridge needed for the Turkish 'security zone' in northern Syria," Mr Balanche says, referring to a long-planned buffer zone Turkey has wanted to be put in place since 2019.