On October 6, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart Donald Trump had a phone conversation. When it ended, officials in Ankara were reportedly frustrated that Trump had not sufficiently taken into account Turkish concerns about northern Syria. Yet hours later, the Turkish leadership’s feelings changed dramatically when the White House issued a statement expressing support for a Turkish military incursion in northeastern Syria:
“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”
The statement went on to blame European countries—namely France and Germany—for not taking back Islamic State fighters from Europe, stating that the US would not hold them and that “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial ‘Caliphate’ by the United States.”
Purportedly, Trump heeded Erdogan’s advice to either have the US military join Turkish operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG), or at least move American forces out of the way. Washington and Ankara had been spending weeks discussing plans for a “buffer zone” along Turkey’s border with Syria that was aimed at keeping the YPG’s forces at least 20 miles from Turkish territory. Yet frustrated with the lack of progress on this front, which Ankara mainly attributed to the Pentagon’s alleged stalling, the Turks began preparations for a military incursion into northern Syria to rid the areas where this “buffer zone” is supposed to exist of any YPG presence. For Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, pushing ahead with plans for resettling the majority of these refugees in northern Syria is an extremely high priority.
Due to strong bipartisan backlashes against the idea of ordering US troops to move out of the area, Trump walked backed his previous announcements.
This is not the first time that Trump vowed to withdraw US troops from Syria (or at least from parts of the country) following phone conversations with Erdogan. After a call on March 30, 2018, Trump announced a withdrawal on April 4, 2018. On December 19, 2018, he did so again after speaking to Erdogan five days earlier. Yet due to strong bipartisan backlashes against the idea of ordering US troops to move out of the area, Trump walked backed his previous announcements.
For Trump, domestic politics in the US are constantly at the forefront of his foreign policy decision-making with considerations about next year’s presidential election behind each move he makes in the Middle East. Unquestionably, Trump’s decision has shifted the US public’s attention away from impeachment inquiries consuming the American media’s attention. At the same time, having campaigned in 2015/2016 on winding down American wars and military campaigns in the Middle East, Trump will tell voters in the US that he has managed to essentially outsource the fight against the Islamic State in Syria to Turkey.
Most likely because of strong condemnation from lawmakers on both sides of the isle, Trump took to Twitter to warn Turkey that he would “obliterate” the country’s economy if Ankara decided to do anything that was “off limits.” Clearly, the American president was keen to remind the Turkish government of the US sanctions which Washington had imposed on Ankara to pressure Turkey into releasing American Pastor Andrew Brunson last year, that jolted the Turkish economy.
Notwithstanding this threat from Trump, on October 7 the Turkish military began shelling YPG positions in the Syrian border town of al-Malikiyah. Soon after, Turkey’s military struck a supply lines across the Syrian-Iraqi border in order to prevent the YPG from accessing more ammunition and other supplies.
Hami Aksoy, the spokesman for Turkey’s foreign ministry, stated that Ankara’s fundamental right is to safeguard its national security against the YPG threat. “Turkey is determined to clear terrorists from the east of the Euphrates and protect its own security and survival while implementing a secure zone in order to achieve peace and stability.”
On October 9, Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, declared that Turkey’s military and Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army troops would begin its long-threatened incursion “shortly.” That same day, Turkey made good on its threat and launched Operation Spring Peace right before the country’s president took to Twitter to announce that the campaign had commenced:
“The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria,” Erdogan declared. “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.”
Turkey’s warplanes began pounding Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain, Ain Issa, and Qamishlo, leading to civilian casualties according to initial reports from YPG sources. The following day, Turkey’s Defense Ministry claimed that Operation Peace Spring had targeted 181 “terrorist” targets. Meanwhile, Kurdish forces in Syria claimed that in Tal Abyad they repelled a Turkish ground offensive.
A major concern is that Islamic State could prove to be a benefactor.
Ultimately, the regional ramifications of Turkey’s anticipated incursion into northern Syria have yet to be realized. Yet a major concern is that Islamic State could prove to be a benefactor. If Turkey is unable to hold the 70,000 Islamic State detainees, which the YPG and other groups under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella have been holding up until now, there would be good reason to worry about a worsening of the security environment. This factor, among others, has left Turkey quite isolated internationally with respect to Operation Peace Spring.
Foreign Opposition to Turkey’s anti-YPG Operations
Beyond the US, few governments in the world are showing much sympathy to Ankara’s third military campaign in northern Syria since 2016. In the West there has been widespread condemnation.
The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab voiced “serious concerns” about Turkey’s military campaign, maintaining that Ankara’s assault “risks destabilizing the region, exacerbating humanitarian suffering, and undermining the progress made against [Islamic State] which should be our collective focus.”
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas accused Ankara of “willingly risking further destabilizing the region and a resurgence of [Islamic State].” Maas said that “Syria needs stability and a political process… however, the Turkish offensive now threatens to cause a new humanitarian disaster” and that Germany would “urge Turkey to end its offensive and to pursue its security interests peacefully.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said his government is “very worried” about Turkey’s attacks on forces that worked with France to fight Islamic State in Syria. Additionally, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway took diplomatic action against Ankara’s Operation Spring Peace. In response, the Norwegians decided to suspend news arms sales to Turkey.
Angered by the West’s condemnations of Turkey’s anti-YPG campaign in northern Syria, the Turkish head of state warned that Europe would be flooded with 3.6 million refugees if European officials continue calling Ankara’s assault against the YPG in northern Syria an “invasion.” Erdogan’s words were a reminder of how much Turkey influences the outcome of the Middle East and Africa’s refugee crises from Europe’s perspective, and how disappointed Ankara has been with the West vis-à-vis the conflict in Syria. Indeed, since 2012/2013, major disagreements over Assad, the YPG, and refugee policies—combined with other multifaceted issues—have severely undermined Turkey’s trust in its fellow NATO states.
Operation Peace Spring is not only stressing Turkey’s ties with the West. Rather strong international condemnation and criticism of Ankara’s anti-YPG operations in northern Syria may create new animosity and tension in Turkey’s relations with a host of non-Western powers too, including powerful states in the Islamic world.
Scores of Arab states quickly condemned Operation Peace Spring as well.
China and India joined major Western powers in opposing Turkey’s campaign too, albeit more for reasons pertaining to respect for Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty than support for the YPG (frequently labelled “the Kurds” in the Western press). Russia responded cautiously and pragmatically, albeit with major concerns on Moscow’s part about a Turkish military presence in northern Syria becoming permanent. Meanwhile, scores of Arab states quickly condemned Operation Peace Spring as well. Among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, all but Qatar and Oman took officials positions against the Turkish operations, as did the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Libya’s Tobruk-based administration.
Despite having conducted joint military operations with Turkey to strike the PKK earlier this year, Iran has opposed Ankara’s current anti-YPG campaign. Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif “urged respect for Syria’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty,” according to a foreign ministry statement issued on October 7. Iran’s parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani had a trip planned to the Turkish capital which he cancelled after Turkey’s Syria operation was launched. Iran’s Foreign Ministry called for an “immediate end to the attacks and for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian soil.”
The ministry’s statement continued: “The FM of the Islamic Republic of Iran understands Turkey’s security concerns, and, as already stated, believes that the military action would not only not diminish that country’s security concerns, but also cause financial and humanitarian damages.” Iran also joined Russia in blaming Washington for the overall crisis in Syria, holding US policies in Syria responsible for the conditions that led to Turkey deciding to wage this anti-YPG campaign.
However, Turkey did gain support from Pakistan, which earlier this year Ankara backed strongly against India’s abrogation of Article 370 and tightening grip over Indian-administered Kashmir. Mohammad Faisal, Islamabad’s Foreign Ministry spokesman stated, “We recognize Turkey’s legitimate security concerns in the region. Like Pakistan, Turkey has also been a victim of terrorism.” He added, “Pakistan also acknowledge Turkey’s humanitarian efforts by graciously hosting over 3.5 million Syrian refugees.” Many Pakistani Twitter users incorporated the tag #TurkeyisnotAlone into posts with displays of Pakistani and Turkish flags next to each other.
An Uncertain Road for Turkey
As Turkey’s campaign continues while lacking support from the international community, many important questions remain open regarding the security crisis in northern Syria. The YPG vows to resist and could possibly partner with the Syrian regime—and perhaps other Arab states and/or Israel—to fight (what the militia and officials in Damascus call) the “occupying” power. Although the YPG would have no chance of defeating Turkish forces in an all-out war given the power imbalance between both sides, the militia waging an insurgency later on could make Turkey’s campaign increasingly costly and difficult.
To put matters into a geographical perspective, while Ankara has had a difficult time attempting to stabilize Idlib via the Astana format (made up of Turkey, Russia, and Iran), the amount of land that Turkey seeks to set up in its “buffer zone” is far larger than Idlib, and Moscow and Tehran are not working with Turkey in Operation Peace Spring.
How Turkey’s assault on northeastern Syria impacts global, regional, and local efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria remains to be seen. If Turkey is unable to hold the 70,000 Islamic State detainees, which the YPG and other groups under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella have been holding up until now, there would be good reason for major concerns about a worsening of the security environment. Unclear is to what extent the Turks succeed in combatting Islamic State terrorists.
Ultimately, Turkey’s leadership has chosen to accept major risks. Domestic repercussions must also be a major concern for Turkey’s government. Economically, a prolonged Turkish campaign in northern Syria that fails to produce a decisive victory for Ankara could force the government to run higher budget deficits and accept borrowing costs. Yet the main way in Operation Peace Spring’s consequences could damage Turkey’s economic health pertains to American lawmakers vowing to sanction Turkey which would hit the country’s currency and perhaps push Turkey into a recession.
As more voices in Washington become angry at Trump for his decision that paved the way for Ankara to launch its Syria operation, pressure will likely mount on him to indicate more specifically to Turkey what “off limits” actually means.
By the time of Erdogan’s scheduled visit to the White House on November 13, it is a fool’s errand to guess what kind of messages America’s commander-in-chief will send the Turkish president.