How will Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria end?
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan is on a winning streak. That phone call with Donald Trump was all he needed. The United States’ carte blanche has enabled the Turkish army to enter northeast Syria and take on the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
It will not take long before the predominantly Kurdish militia, which Turkey considers an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is routed in the border towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad.
Turkey’s operation against the Kurdish-held northwest Syrian district of Afrin in January last year gives us some clues of what is to be expected. Not only is Erdoğan on the cusp of scoring a victory across the border, but his domestic political opposition has also joined the choir of cheerleaders for “Operation Peace Spring”.
Having won control of the municipalities of the biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, from the ruling party in local elections this year, the opposition has happily rallied behind the nation’s leader.
Erdoğan has not missed an opportunity to flog another one of his favourite issues; Europe. Faced with a French call for an emergency UN Security Council meeting, the president threatened the EU – yet again – that he would let 3.6 million Syrian refugees head westwards. A message which, no doubt, plays well with a fair number of Turks who feel the millions of Syrians in Turkey have outstayed their welcome.
The question is, what is Turkey’s long game in northeast Syria? The scope of its military intervention might give us a hint.
On paper, the aim is to establish a safe zone that stretches all the way from the River Euphrates (and possibly the town of Manbij on its western bank) to the area around Derik (al-Malikiyah) adjacent to Iraq. That is consistent with the map Erdoğan displayed at the UN General Assembly last month.
Judging from the ground offensive, though, the goal might be to capture Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn as well as the 117-km stretch of land between them. The safe zone will go 30-35 km deep into Syria. A limited operation means the YPG could retain parts of northeast Syria, including Kobani in the west, Qamishli, the main urban centre in the area where Syrian government forces still control the airport, as well as the cities of Hasakah and Raqqa further south. The Turkish-held zone would cut through Kurdish-populated territory and thwart plans to cement it into an autonomous political entity.
Should the United States pull out entirely as Trump wishes, “Peace Spring” would be an open invitation to Syrian President Bashar Assad to step into the fray and pick up what is left after the Turkish invasion. That might happen with or without a deal between the Syrian government and the YPG, but certainly would be an outcome that Russia as well as Iran would endorse. Northeast Syria would become part of the Astana negotiations.
A territorial foothold would translate into leverage for Turkey. Sunni Arabs in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces would start turning to it for favours. There would be money pouring into the Turkish economy, with profits to be made by both construction companies close to the AKP and local proxies. That would include some Kurds too. People affiliated with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), previously banished by YPG, would join the Ankara-backed local councils that are bound to emerge.
To be sure, the piece of real estate Erdoğan is carving out comes at a cost. The most direct threat comes from the United States. There is now momentum in Congress for sanctions. Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham are openly critical of Trump’s Syria decision, in contrast to their steadfast support over the impeachment hearings and Ukraine-gate. He has joined forces with colleagues across the aisle, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, in crafting a sanctions bill. Evangelical leaders are similarly calling for a tough response.
Syrian Kurds may lose this battle, but they have long won the war for hearts and minds as far as American public opinion is concerned. The irony of Republicans raising hell about the perils of socialism at home while sympathising with a Marxist-Leninist movement in the Middle East cannot be missed.
Sure enough, Erdoğan has avoided blowback from the United States, notably over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. He might even get away with the Syria operation. The White House could veto sanctions legislation, vindicating Turkey’s Trump-focused strategy once more.
Another option Turkey has is to call an early end to the military operation once they capture the two border towns. That way, all parties could claim victory. Erdoğan – for dealing a hard blow to the YPG and bending the United States to his will, Lindsey Graham – for preventing an all-out Turkish takeover of northeast Syria, and Trump – for cutting a deal with Erdoğan that allows him to claim that a “stupid war” inherited from Obama has been brought to an end.