President Erdogan's Syria operation offers Turkey 'what it wants'

Plans for a military operation in Kurdish-controlled Syria will be a popular move in economically weary Turkey, which is still reeling from the refugee crisis, writes Andrew Wilks in Ankara

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint press conference with Serbian President in Belgrade, on October 7, 2019. / AFP / OLIVER BUNIC
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Turkey’s plans for an assault on Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria, enabled by the withdrawal of US forces from the border, stem from domestic unease over a large refugee population as well as legitimate security concerns, according to analysts.

The 3.6 million Syrians living in Turkey have increasingly become a political football while the country faces economic uncertainty.

As talk of an incursion into Syria to clear out Kurdish militants that Ankara considers to be terrorists intensified last week, government officials revealed plans to resettle two million refugees in a 30 kilometre “safe zone” on the Syrian side, stretching from the Euphrates river to the Iraq frontier.

During the course of the civil war, Turkey has been firmly opposed to the Kurdish enclave that encompasses a third of Syrian territory, declaring it an existential threat.

The region was carved out by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged a four-decade war against the Turkish state that saw tens of thousands killed.

Kamal Alam, a London-based military analyst specialising in Syria and Turkey, said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced growing pressure to resolve the refugee issue.

"There are a number of domestic factors that have brought this about — the refugee crisis and the economic situation that has turned people against refugees," he told The National. "They needed to move ahead."

"It will make Erdogan immensely popular because Turkey's got what it wants."

Selim Sazak, research director at Ankara consultancy TUM Strategy, said an incursion would play well with Mr Erdogan’s nationalist allies as well as the wider Turkish public.

“One of the nationalists’ primary issues is to deny a Kurdish microstate on the border,” he said. “Unless you’re a Kurdish nationalist or a secular leftist ally of the Kurds, everyone in Turkey’s going to be delighted with this.

“It will make Erdogan immensely popular because Turkey’s got what it wants.”

The operation would likely prove to be “the final nail in the coffin of a YPG-controlled microstate in northern Syria,” he added.

For Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst, the US decision was the “logical outcome".

He said: “The Americans had to choose between sticking with the Kurds and having a confrontation with a Nato ally or dropping their support for the YPG.”

The US retreat is seen by some observers as an abandonment of the Kurdish allies who led the ground campaign of the last four years to remove ISIS from Syria.

Previously, the presence of US soldiers was a deterrent to a Turkish assault. “The US presence was a factor in delaying the operation and there’s been a painful back and forth between DC and Ankara,” said Dr Alam.

“Turkey would not want to be hitting US troops and Ankara’s finally convinced the US to step aside.”

On Saturday, Mr Erdogan told a gathering of ruling party officials that preparations for an incursion had been completed and suggested it would be called Operation Source of Peace.

The potential operation would be the third large-scale Turkish incursion into northern Syria. In August 2016 it launched Euphrates Shield in northern Aleppo province against the YPG and ISIS. Operation Olive Branch in March last year saw Turkish troops and allied militias take the northwestern Kurdish district of Afrin.

Ankara also has soldiers in Idlib, where they are manning observation posts to enforce a nominal ceasefire between rebels and government forces.

A third campaign could see Turkey control territory along most of its 900km border with Syria.

However, it could face stiff opposition from the YPG and conflict with Syrian government forces, Dr Alam said.

“Turkey has the air power and more powerful artillery but moving into urban areas will be difficult,” he said. “It could be a full-on pitched battle and the YPG has the capability to bog down the Turkish military, as the PKK’s done for decades in Turkey.

“For it to be a success, it has to be a swift operation to take territory quickly and resettle Syrian refugees.”

He added: “We could see a mutual interest develop between the Kurds and the Syrian government against Turkey. There’s the potential for them to work against Turkey militarily.”

Any operation will be helped by the removal of YPG border defences as US and Turkish troops began joint patrols on the Syrian side last month, as well as intelligence gathered during joint air missions.

The announcement from Washington came after a telephone call between Mr Erdogan and US President Donald Trump, who in December pledged to withdraw most US troops from Syria as he sought to end US entanglement in foreign military missions.

“Trump made a promise to withdraw US troops and now there’s an election coming this is an easy chance to deliver a campaign promise,” Mr Sazak said, adding the move could see Mr Trump become “more popular than Kennedy” in  Turkey.

There are concerns about what will happen to thousands of ISIS militants held in Kurdish prisons, including around 2,500 foreign fighters, for whom Turkey will now take responsibility.

“Erdogan said they will send ISIS fighters back [to their home countries] but that’s easier said than done,” Dr Alam said. “Turkey certainly won’t want them on their territory and this could be another card to pressure the [European Union] for funds.”