Geopolitics of Turkey’s military operation in Syria

Turkey military operation in the Middle East
Turkey’s military operation in Syria and Iraq might change the geopolitical balances in the Middle East (Credits: Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 26 Issue 1
Author: Silvia Boltuc

After the November 13th, 2022, terrorist bombing attack in Turkey, Ankara started a military operation targeting Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. While Russia is concentrated on Ukraine and Iran is facing internal turmoil, Turkey is gaining ground in the Middle East. Ankara is enhancing its role as a mediator in the Ukraine conflict and affirming itself as a transit hub for gas supplies among the growing international community’s concern about Turkey’s attacks.

Geopolitical scenario

2022 marked the 11th year of the Syrian conflict between the Syrian government, its partners, and various opposition parties. Despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in 2019 by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Islamic State fighters continue to operate as an insurgency extremist group. Currently, five external actors are operative in Syria: Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey and Israel.

Syria has become the main theatre in which competition among this superpower has been playing out, increasing the potential for rising tension. While recently, Iranian and Turkish interests aligned, as both countries are combating Kurdish insurgency, Israel conducts regular air strikes inside Syria on Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah targets that the Israeli government views as threats to its security.

The U.S., Turkey and Russian forces operate in northern Syria; while Washington and Moscow maintain a deconfliction channel to avoid inadvertent conflict between the respective forces, by targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish elements of SDF forces that the Turkish government views as terrorists, Ankara might create friction with Russia and the United States.

In 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran established the Astana peace process to resolve the conflict in Syria. This format prevented conflict between them while also dividing their spheres of influence. Although Ankara states that its operations in Syria have been to counter the threat of cross-border terrorism, they actually transformed northern Syria into a de-facto zone of Turkish influence.

Tehran is concerned about Turkey-Israel relations, fearing that it may eventually lead to joint Turkish-Israeli initiatives to undermine Iran’s influence in the region as part of Ankara’s expansionist foreign policy to revive Turkish control over the former Ottoman territories, including Syria.

Biden Administration officials have stated that the United States seeks a political settlement to the conflict in Syria consistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015). U.S. policy priorities in Syria include defeating the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Recent Turkish attacks in northern Syria pushed Kurdish forces to threaten to stop their anti-terrorism operation while calling on international condemnation.

Military scenario

On November 19th, 2022, Turkey started a military operation in North and East Syria to ‘defeat terrorism’, according to official statements. Turkish attacks followed the explosion targeting Istanbul’s lively Istiklal Avenue, where a TNT-laden bomb detonated, killing six people and wounding over 80. A 23-year-old Syrian national allegedly admitted having left the explosives-laden bag on a bench in the street but said she did not know what was inside of it. Turkish authorities have blamed the attack on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Defense Units (YPG). Kurdish groups officially denied any involvement.

On November 20th, 2022, the Turkish Defence Department released a statement which highlighted:

by neutralising the PKK/KCK/YPG and other terrorist elements; to prevent terrorist attacks against our people and security forces from the north of Iraq and Syria, to ensure border security and to destroy terrorism at its source; in line with our self-defence rights arising from Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, the Claw Sword (Pence Kılıç) air operation was carried out in the regions in the north of Iraq and Syria, which are used as bases for attacks on our country by terrorists“.

On November 22nd, 2022, a Turkish drone strike hit a U.S. base used by the Global coalition against the Islamic State in Syria’s Hasakah, likely to target Mazlum Kobane (also known as Mazlum Abdi), SDF commander in chief, which is on Turkey’s most wanted list. The drone struck within 500 m of the coalition base, killing two members of the U.S.-backed group.

While the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said on November 18th, 2022, that the Consulate was following “open-source reliable news that Turkey may conduct military operations in northern Syria and northern Iraq in the coming days”, during an interview Abdi affirmed that it was not sure whether Russia or the United States were aware of the upcoming Turkish attack. According to Abdi, Turkish Armed Forces attacked an area 70 kilometres deep into their territory between Raqqa and Hasakah, which is jointly controlled by U.S. and Russian forces.

Recent Turkish president’s statements after four days of strikes in Syria and Iraq suggest that Ankara is planning a ground operation against YPG. For SDF’s commander-in-chief, their actual target might be Kobani, a highly symbolic city for the Kurds, where their national struggle was launched and the fight against the Islamic State took off.

While the air operation was successful, a ground operation against Kurdish forces located in their respective zones of influence would be impossible without the approval of Washington and Moscow. Nevertheless, given the recent U.S. disengagement in the region, focusing on the Asia-Pacific area, and the fact that Russia is concentrated in Ukraine, Ankara believes this is its moment to gain ground. “On the battlefield, from now on, power is in the hands of Turkey,” writes the Türkiye Newspaper commenting on the balance of power in Syria and Iraq. “As a result of its cross-border operations, Turkey has become a major force on the battlefield,” the newspaper noted.

Although Abdi underlined that Kobani, Manbij, and all those areas targeted by Turkey are under Russian control, recent cooperation agreements between Ankara and Moscow might push the Kremlin to remain silent. On the other hand, during the 18th round of negotiations in the “Astana format” in June 2022, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation Alexander Lavrentiev told, “it is absolutely impossible to talk about the reduction of Russian forces in Syria“, or a Russia disengagement.

The Turkish Armed Forces can conduct military operations from their territory anywhere along the long Turkish-Syrian border and ensure complete air supremacy. The latter is especially important, given that Turkey has more than 250-280 F-16 fighter aircraft in service, which is about ten times more than the Russian Aerospace Forces in the Arab Republic of Syria (SAR). Not to mention the superiority of the Turkish Air Force over the combat-ready part of the obsolete SAR Air Force fleet, the leading aircraft maintained in combat readiness are mainly Su-22s, still of Soviet manufacture in the 70s.

In addition, in the Idlib region in the northwest of the SAR held by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group (HTS) and in the surrounding areas of Northern Aleppo, in the so-called ‘buffer zone’ in the areas of the former Turkish operations “Euphrates Shield” (Azaz-Al-Bab-Jarabulus region) and “Olive Branch” (Afrin), which are under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), since the beginning of 2022 HTS radicals are trying to subjugate the SNA groups enduring in Idlib, include them in their ranks to remain the only force hostile to Damascus in the Syrian northwest. HTS seeks to extend its influence to Northern Aleppo, a “buffer zone” where it has never been before.

Political scenario

The timing of the Istanbul attack, seven months before the next election, fuelled some suspicions. According to research released by the Operations Social Research Center (Yöneylem Sosyal Araştırmalar Merkezi) in September 2022, 55.8% of voters said, “I will never vote for Erdoğan“. If, on the one hand, the bombing attack might have prepared the ground for the Turkish military operation in Syria, it might also help to increase internal consensus.

Looking at Turkey’s recent history, in fact, in 2015 and 2016, several bombings killed 862 people amid two parliamentary elections and an attempted military coup.

As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AKP) party exploited these events to regain the majority, this might be the strategy again. Growing internal discontent with rising inflation and pressure on the media (Ankara shut down several media platforms during the recent November 13th attack) could be silenced with its foreign policy successes as an interlocutor for the Ukrainian crisis and exploiting the common enemy of the Kurdish terrorism.

screenshot 2022.12.01 17 32 52
Survey on next Turkish presidential elections (Source: Twitter AccountYöneylem Sosyal Araştırmalar Merkezi)

Risk assessment

Turkey has been conducting airstrikes targeting power stations, oil sites, schools and even a covid-19 hospital in Kurdish regions in Syria and Iraq since November 19th, 2022. In a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on November 29th, 2022, the foreign policy spokesman of the German government, Jürgen Trittin, condemned Turkey’s “illegal attacks” on Syria and Iraq. The German Greens MP said that NATO needs “clear decisions and clear positions” regarding Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey.

Trittin had previously called for tougher sanctions on Turkey, saying in September that NATO and the European Union “should ask themselves how long they will let Erdoğan toy with them.”

While Turkey plays a significant role in the complex negotiations on the background of the Ukrainian Conflict, Ankara also signed vital energy agreements with Moscow to become a Russian gas transit hub, enhancing its position in the Eurasian chessboard.

Although U.S. interest in the Middle East seemed to have waned, Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said that the continued conflict, especially a ground invasion, would severely jeopardise the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against the Islamic State and would destabilise the region.

SDF commander-in-chief considers that the United States need to articulate a clearer policy on Syria, as they have no strategy beyond fighting the Islamic State. This lack of clarity makes it harder for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to negotiate an agreement with Moscow, which is what Russia also wants.

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