Analysis 07-03-2015



Turkey’s Complicated Game in Syrian

Turkish President Erdogan and the Turkish parliament have authorized a change in the rules of engagement to allow the Turkish army to strike at ISIS as well as the Assad regime, according to Turkish newspapers. The aim is to establish a buffer zone for refugees and against ISIS.

While this might, at first blush, be welcomed by America, Erdogan has also suggested that the main target of the intervention, if it goes ahead, will be to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s doorstep. “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south,” Erdogan said last weekend. “We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.”

Up to this point in time, Turkey has refused to act unilaterally in Syria. That changed earlier this week after a meeting of their national security council.

According to reports, the Turkish Army is preparing to send an 18,000-strong force across the border, with some reports saying the move could take place as early as today.

The troops would seize a stretch of territory 60 miles long by 20 deep, including the border crossings of Jarablus, currently in ISIS hands, and Aazaz, currently controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but under attack from ISIS.

Reports indicate that Turkey will first try to get diplomatic support of its NATO allies and US-led coalition forces. Failing that, “Plan B” will come into plan, and Turkey will create a buffer zone on its own, and will train and equip the Free Syrian Army.

The creation of a buffer zone would allow Turkey to stop the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey by setting up refugee camps within Syria, but protected by Turkey. The buffer zone would also allow them to control the flow of munitions into Syria.

However, there is another domestic reason for the move – controlling Kurdish desires for an independent state. The move would prevent the two current zones of Kurdish control – from Kobane to the Iraq border in the east, and Afrin in the west – from joining up. Erdogen is hostile to any independent Kurdish state – even in Syria because it would inspire Kurdish demands for independence from Turkey. In addition, the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG) is an offshoot of the PKK guerrilla group which has fought for autonomy in south-eastern Turkey for four decades.

Turkey was shocked by the recent victories by Kurdish militias in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa province, especially the seizure of the town of Tal Abyad, which is right on Turkey’s border.

However, political goals aren’t always best achieved with military force. The Turkish army is not eager to invade Syria, where it may find itself quickly bogged down in a war without any hope of winning it.

Another problem is domestic politics since a coalition government hasn’t been put in place. Obviously, any move to limit Kurdish gains in Syria will be opposed by the Kurdish Party, which won 80 seats in the last election.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) second-in-command and acting military leader, Murat KarayÕlan, has said that if Turkey intervenes in the Kurdish-majority area in northeastern Syria, the PKK will turn the entire country into a warzone.

This threat has to be taken seriously. On Tuesday there was a clash between PKK fighters and the Turkish army after an attack on the Daglica military base in the Hakkari province. The Ankara Chiefs of Staff say that the mortar and machine gun attack in which no one was injured had been launched on Monday evening. The new agency Dogan reports that bombs have been dropped by Turkish jets in retaliation in the Daglica area, where groups of PKK fighters are allegedly hiding.

However, the opposition doesn’t end with the Kurds. There is opposition to the operation being approved by the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who is only still in place because of difficulties forming a coalition.

The intervention would also be opposed by the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP), which blames Erdogan for making the Syrian war worse by supporting Islamist rebels rather than using his influence to negotiate peace.

“There is not sufficient reason to send Turkish troops to Syria,” said Faruk Logoglu, who until the election was head of the CHP’s foreign affairs committee. “Once you do that there is no way out.”

Turkey isn’t the only nation looking at securing its border with Syria. Jordan is also looking at creating a buffer zone in Southern Syria. The Syrian government is currently in nominal control of these provinces. But a coordinated rebel offensive, consisting in large part of fighters from the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, has sparked concern in Jordan that a full-scale Syrian withdrawal from the area could occur, provoking chaos along the border.

Jordan worries that jihadists could establish a permanent foothold along the country’s border with Syria, or use the area for attacks inside Jordan. The zone of control would likely include the Syrian city of Deraa, and would be manned by US and Jordan-supported “moderate” rebels along with more direct Jordanian military support.

American Response

Although Turkey has indicated it will ask for NATO and coalition help before acting unilaterally, it is unlikely to get full support from them. There are too many differing goals between Turkey and its western and regional allies – one being the American desire to keep a powerful Kurdish force in play against ISIS.

The question is if, and how, the US will support these incursions into Syria. In the case of Turkey, US/Turkish relations haven’t been the best in recent years and although the US might welcome some stability in the Syrian Civil War, the domestic aspects of the Turkish invasion would worry the Obama Administration, which has a good relationship with the Iraqi Kurds.

Another problem is that although Jordan and Turkey might be planning the same type of operation, their relationship with the Kurds is quite different. “Kurdistan has had historical ties with the Kingdom of Jordan since the times of late General Mullah Mustafa Barzani and King Hussein bin Talal,” said Falah Mustafa, head of Erbil’s Department of Foreign Relations in Iraqi Kurdistan. “This relationship has continued and there is an increased interest from both sides to further enhance relations.”

Royal Jordanian Airlines flies to Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan was one of the first countries to open a full consulate in the Kurdish capital in 2010.

Clearly, cooperation between Jordan and Turkey in this operation would be minimal.

This leaves the US in a difficult situation. It also limits what it is willing to do.

From an American point of view, Turkey can carry out its part of the operation with little help. The Assad regime will tend to ignore any Turkish incursion since it will be designed to weaken two of its enemies, ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish militia. This means the American Air Force will not be needed for an air superiority role. And, although Turkey might like some American assistance, its large army and air force can handle the operation with little outside assistance.

While Turkey is a NATO ally, Jordan will probably receive the most American assistance as its current relationship with Washington is better. The Jordanian Army will require greater logistics and military assistance in securing its buffer zone. And, it can expect more humanitarian assistance.

Assistance to Jordan would likely include increased shipments of munitions and the deployment of additional Special Forces. Some of the assistance might even be funded by Saudi Arabia or other GCC nations. There would likely be some US air support – either manned aircraft for tactical missions and as a guarantor of any no-fly zone imposed by Jordan.

It’s likely that Jordan will also receive assistance from Israel, which is anxious to limit the development of radical militias in southern Syria, especially on its border. In fact, there are reports that Israel wants to become more active in the war under the guise of protecting the Druze communities along the border.

Assistance to Turkey would likely be limited in such a way that it wouldn’t hinder the Kurds. This would include intelligence on ISIS movements and even some air strikes against ISIS targets. But, it is unlikely to help enforce a Turkish no fly zone.

At this time, the Obama Administration has made it clear that it has no interest in ground operations in Syria – either in Jordan or Turkey (although some US Special Forces will likely be engaged in operations in and around Jordan).

The Future of the Buffer Zones

Although Jordan and Turkey see some benefit to establishing buffer zones in Syria, the long term success of these operations remains in question.

Jordan could in some scenarios is likely to see its operation succeed as it has more limited goals – to keep ISIS and al Qaeda militias from the Jordanian border. In that, it will have the tacit assistance of Syria and Israel.

Turkey’s goals are complicated by its domestic political goal of hindering Kurdish militias. With the last election, the Kurds have become a more potent domestic political force and any fighting with the Kurds could make hopes of a Turkish coalition government harder. This might lead to early elections and might hurt Erdogan’s party more than last month’s elections.

Turkey is also fragmenting the war on ISIS. While it is eager to keep ISIS from its borders and out of Syria, it is hindering the Kurds, the most potent anti-ISIS military force in the region.

If Turkey decides to invade Syria, it could find itself in a long term insurgency against al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Kurds. A victory by Turkey would entail defeating all three – a near impossibility, since defeating one of them, would mean the other two would be in a stronger position.

While there may be pressure from some political corners to help Turkey (Senator McCain being the most likely advocate), Obama would be best served to limit any active role with the Turkish operation. It would only complicate his current efforts to defeat ISIS in Iraq.




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Heritage Foundation

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A‌cross the world, we are witnessing both a heroic ‌struggle for democracy and the disturbing strength of tyrannical regimes and movements. Whether it is civil war in Syria, Russian aggression, or the threat of ISIS, democracy and tyranny are in a dead heat.

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Cato Institute

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Center for Strategic and International Studies

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American Enterprise Institute

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Institute for the Study of War

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Washington Institute

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PolicyWatch 2447

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Washington Institute

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PolicyWatch 2445

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