Turkey’s military intervention into northern Syria, helping rebels seize the town of Jarabulus from ISIS, represents Ankara’s boldest move in the longstanding Syrian conflict. As ever it is hard to know whether, in the context of the broader civil war, this dramatic step is a prelude to an ever-deepening morass or an opening for a political track. It is clear, though, that Kurdish ambitions will now be stymied as various players look to trade them in for Turkish support.
The official rationale for moving Turkish forces across the border is the threat posed to Turkey by ISIS. But ISIS has been operating on Turkey’s southern flanks and even committing terrorist attacks in Turkey for years. In fact, the main driver is likely to have been the perceived need to forestall the westward march of Syrian Kurdish forces who want to establish contiguous control over Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Ankara has long been vocal in its opposition to this effort and has frequently threatened unspecified retaliation if the Kurds moved west of the Euphrates River. The very name of the operation, Euphrates Shield, highlights that this is Ankara’s main intention.
Coming together over screwing the Kurds
Indeed, the intervention signals an unexpected convergence of a significant number of actors who have found common cause in working against the Kurds. Kurdish forces were once useful partners to multiple players in the Syrian war, but they may now be running out of luck.
The US government, which has depended on Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as its primary anti-ISIS ground force in Syria, responded to the Turkish intervention by imposing new constraints on the Kurds. In particular, they threatened an end to military support if the Kurds do not comply with Turkish concerns. In part this reflects US recognition that Kurdish forces can only go so far in seizing Arab majority territory from ISIS. The US knows that it needs Arab Sunni forces – many of whom are backed by Turkey – to take the fight into the ISIS heartlands in Syria.
But the shifting US stance may also point to a deeper concern. Diplomatic manoeuvrings following the recent coup attempt in Turkey suggest Ankara may be considering a strategic realignment. Judging by recent reports in pro-government Turkish newspapers, the Turkish government now appears to believe that the United States is trying to overthrow it or even to destroy Turkey, both through support to the Gulenists and through support for Kurds in Syria and Iraq. This may be increasing the sense within Washington that now is not the time to alienate its NATO ally, which is ultimately a far more important partner than the Kurds.
In recent weeks, Ankara has engaged in an intense round of high-level diplomacy with Russia and Iran and Syria has been high on the agenda. While not formally compromising on its insistence that Assad must go, Turkey has shifted focus toward the idea that Assad will not be part of Syria’s “long term” future. This represents a subtle but important contrast with a previous, more definitive line that he has to depart at the end of a near term transition.
Assad and his backers have seized upon this evolving, albeit still inchoate, Turkish position. For years the Assad regime has had a tacit non-aggression pact with the Kurds. But Syrian government forces recently opened up a new front against them, launching air strikes on the Kurdish held city of Hassakeh. The attack was surely intended to signal to Ankara that Damascus could be an effective partner in containing the Kurdish challenge—perhaps more effective than the United States.
Meanwhile talks between Turkey and Assad’s main backers resulted in a renewed, common commitment to Syria’s national unity. And despite the inevitable condemnation from Damascus of the infringement of Syrian sovereignty, the Russian and Iranian responses to the Turkish incursion were surprisingly muted. Tehran, which faces its own internal Kurdish challenge, said nothing at all. Moreover, there is likely to have been at least some minimal coordination between Ankara and Moscow given Russia’s military presence in Syria and a Turkish preoccupation with ensuring that it did not provoke an incident similar to the one which resulted in the downing of a Russian military jet last year. That inadvertent clash sent Turkish-Russian relations reeling and they have only recently recovered.
Where does Turkey go from here?
Even if the competition for Turkish support has forged a rare unity around the Kurdish issue, it remains uncertain how this will affect the wider war. As so often in the Syrian crisis, one apparently decisive step shrouds a multitude of complexities and divisions.
For one, Turkish repositioning needs to be set against the backdrop of Ankara’s ongoing armed backing for Syrian rebels in Aleppo as they face off against Iranian and Russian backed regime forces. Even as there seems to be some alignment on the Kurdish question – which Assad and his backers hope will ultimately draw Turkey into a new position on the broader civil war – the fight in Aleppo is getting more intense. The Syrian rebels are likely to see the Turkish invasion as a game-changing event in their favour and push ever harder against regime forces.
A key question is whether Ankara sees its support for rebel forces as part of a broader negotiating tactic aimed at strengthening its hand for genuine deal-making with Assad’s backers. Or is Ankara in fact looking to distract Assad’s backers with the hint of a new position to secure its Kurdish interests while ultimately remaining committed to more immediate regime change in Syria? In the end, it is hard to imagine that the different actors can simultaneously remain in alignment on the Kurdish question while maintaining a brutal fight elsewhere. Something will have to give.
Much, of course, will depend on exactly how Turkey’s intervention unfolds. Most acutely, it remains to be seen if Turkey will be drawn into a deeper conflict with the Kurds in Syria. While the US in particular is trying to mediate between its two allies to maintain a shared focus on the ISIS fight, it is hard to see how this does not get messy. For the Kurds the entire conflict has been about establishing a quasi-state of their own within Syria; for Turkey it is now about preventing such an outcome.
This raises serious questions about what kind of presence Turkey intends to leave in Syria. Indeed it may now be tying itself into a more costly exercise than it originally imagined. There was sound reason for Ankara’s long insistence that any intervention in Syria could only be managed as part of an international effort. But Turkey now finds itself out front in Syria, with only marginal US support, facing serious questions about the nature of its exit strategy.
Recent years have repeatedly highlighted the rebels’ inability to hold conquered territory, with ISIS’ recapture of al-Rai in April following a Turkish-backed rebel seizure a case in point. Turkey may well need to stick around and escalate its presence for some time to come if its interests are to be maintained. In the end, more than anything else, this could well be the determining dynamic shaping Turkey’s ongoing positioning in the wider civil war.
But for the moment only one thing is certain: Syria’s civil war just got even more complicated.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.