Understanding Turkey's endgame in Syria

As the mire in northern Syria deepens daily, what is the likely endgame or goal for Turkey? It's a NATO ally, but has...

Posted: Jan 23, 2018 1:37 PM
Updated: Jan 23, 2018 1:37 PM

As the mire in northern Syria deepens daily, what is the likely endgame or goal for Turkey? It's a NATO ally, but has just launched a military operation against a group the United States has trained and armed to fight ISIS over the past three years. Where does this go?

It is hard to imagine -- given the scale of forces the Turks appear to have deployed at this stage -- that they have the numbers to force their way into a huge swath of northern Syria, like the part-mountainous, Kurdish-controlled Afrin region, and hold it indefinitely.

That would be messy, result in some Turkish losses eventually and take a while. This is more likely about harassing the Syrian Kurds there into some sort of political arrangement.

Afrin is geographically an anomaly from the rest of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory: stuck out to the west of the country, a significant distance from Syrian Kurds' traditional area of power and -- even since they took the town of Manbij from ISIS with US help -- still with a chunk of Syrian Arab rebel territory cutting it off.

Looking at the future geography and breakup of northern Syria post-ISIS, Afrin was a complex question to answer. Now it appears that Turkey's leaders -- as they see the Syrian regime consolidate control on Aleppo and move in towards Idlib, and as the Syrian Kurds get comfortable east of the Euphrates river with American backing -- want to define their terms.

Exactly what those are remain unclear, but Turkey is getting part of what it wants already. That is the diplomatic flurry around Ankara as NATO representatives and US officials appear to have flooded in to listen to and assuage Turkish concerns.

This Turkish offensive appeared -- rhetorically at least -- to be linked to the US announcing it would train a 30,000-strong Syrian Kurdish force in the Syrian northeast, and then swiftly downplaying the precise nature and role of that force when Turkey responded negatively.

Turkey has long warned that it will not tolerate control of much of its border with Syria by the Syrian Kurds. To Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, they are indistinguishable from the Kurdish separatists in Turkey that Ankara, the US and the European Union have branded as "terrorists".

Perhaps at its most optimistic, Turkey would like to see the Syrian Kurds (the YPG in its armed form, and the PYD as its political version) simply leave Afrin, and accept as ample reward the territory they already have to the east in the wake of ISIS' fall.

That's not massively likely at present, but a slow noose around the area may soften Syrian Kurdish opinion about the issue. It would assist in fulfilling one Turkish long-term goal, which is a wide strip of the northwestern Syrian border becoming a safe zone Turkey helps control, and to which Syrian refugees can return. Syrian Kurdish control of Afrin currently interrupts that plan.

Ankara may be less ambitious and instead consider this display of force as an internal message of strength to Turkish voters -- and an external one to the many different factions carving up Syria now -- that Turkey's voice must be heard.

Turkey could make a fuss, see a slight tweak in US policy and keep troops in place to harass the Syrian Kurds in Afrin indefinitely, and then consider its mission accomplished. So far it has garnered US calls for "restraint" from US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but also for understanding Turkey's "legitimate concerns" for its security from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

There is a wider, but slim risk here. The operation came shortly after the Syrian regime began moving more convincingly into Idlib province -- currently rebel-held, but to the south of Kurdish-held Afrin.

At its widest extension, that puts Turkish troops moving through Afrin with Syrian rebel assistance in the general direction of the Syrian regime advancing through Idlib. That's not good. And Russia, which had been tasked with "deescalating" the area under peace accords and keeping its airspace neutral, appears to be quite happy to stoke Turkey's anger toward its NATO ally, the United States.

This next chapter is as heinously complex as you might expect in the third act of an internecine seven-year war, which no world power really wants to own, but whose final settlement none want to be left out of. The major risk is miscalculation, or one singular mistake or attack that ups the violence past the stage that diplomacy can quickly calm.

Yet so far, Turkey either is working at a very slow military pace, or has relatively modest ambitions.

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