The Turkish government plans to execute a large-scale military operation in northern Syria in the upcoming weeks against Kurdish People's Defense Units (YPG). “We will soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30-kilometer-deep safe zone we established along our southern border,” president Erdoğan said on May 23. “The main target of these operations will be areas that are centers of attacks on our country and safe zones. As soon as the Turkish armed forces, the intelligence service, and police forces complete their preparations, these operations will begin," he concluded.
This will be the fourth extensive military operation carried out against the YPG in Syria in the last six years. In the first three operations, namely Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, Operation Olive Branch in 2018, and Operation Peace Spring in 2019, the Turkish army was able to seize large chunks of territory in northern Syria and drive the YPG further away from Turkey.
The military operations carried out by the Turkish armed forces in Syria and Iraq play an important role in securing not only the country’s borders but also shaping Turkey’s domestic politics. On the one hand, Turkish generals want to extend the buffer zone between Turkey and YPG, an entity with a close relationship with the PKK, whenever an opportunity arises. On the other hand, the incumbent government in Turkey seizes the operations in Syria as an opportunity to bolster its image by appearing tough on “terrorists” among its nationalist constituents. The following military operation will not be an exception to this policy.
The first military incursions against the YPG in Syria comfortably coincided with two landmark elections in Turkey where the ruling AKP and its allies won by a slight margin. The 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield continued until a few weeks before the constitutional referendum in April 2017. The government’s proposal won 51% of the votes, while 49% objected to the new system. This referendum granted Erdogan sweeping new presidential powers that switched Turkey’s governance structure from a parliamentary system to a presidential one with almost no checks and balances. Similarly, the 2018 Operation Olive Branch went on until a few months before the general elections, which included the presidential and parliamentary elections. Erdoğan and his allies were able to win with a slight majority with nearly 53% of the votes.
Turkey is right now on the eve of another critical presidential and parliamentary elections, which are supposed to be held in June 2023. Erdoğan and the AKP are suffering from a worsening economic situation in Turkey, soaring inflation and unemployment rates, decreasing public support, and diminishing prospects for reelection. It will take a miracle within a year if the AKP rekindles Turkey’s growth and economic outlook as in the good old days. In the same vein, it is not likely that Erdoğan will base his reelection campaign on Turkey’s economic success as he did in the first decade of his rule. It is, however, highly likely that the AKP and its far-right coalition partner, Nationalist Action Party (MHP), will base their campaign on security concerns fueled by nationalism, Turkishness, and the country’s survival against the so-called internal and external enemies of the state. A new incursion into northern Syria will constitute a perfect opportunity to uphold this election campaign.
On the other hand, there are discussions about the place and time of the Turkish offensive in Syria. Turkey had coordinated and negotiated its way into Syria with other powers during the previous military operations. This time will not be different. The Syrian districts of the YPG are, in practice, divided by two spheres of influence between Russia and the USA. The western side of the Euphrates River goes to Russia, and the eastern side of the river falls under US influence. Erdoğan was also able to get the limited approval of the US government before the previous operations. This time, the US made it clear that it is against any Turkish operation in the region. "We are deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. Nonetheless, Turkey took hostage the accession talks of Finland and Sweden to NATO, and Ankara will not hesitate to utilize the talks to reduce any pressure against the operation. This can limit the US reaction to Turkey when the operation takes place.
Nevertheless, it is likely that the operation will primarily take place on the western side of the Euphrates River, i.e., on the Russian side of Syria. Therefore, Turkey will probably secure Russia’s blessing before launching the operation. During the previous operations, Erdoğan and Putin carved out spheres of influence in northern Syria between themselves, though Russia had the upper hand in negotiations. As a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia is no more in a strong position vis-à-vis Turkey. On the one side, it has reportedly withdrawn some of its forces from Syria to reinforce its troops in Ukraine, while Ankara is reinforcing its armed forces and proxies in northern Syria for the eventual operation. On the other side, Russia does not have the luxury of tilting Turkey’s stance in Ukraine toward the Western camp. Lastly, Putin would prefer Erdoğan to be elected as the leader of Turkey in the next election, and this special operation will increase his chances. Russia has no illusions about Erdoğan. Yet, he is the devil Putin knows.
To conclude, Turkey’s offensive in Syria serves both military and political purposes. Turkey is resolute in extending a buffer zone between its borders and the YPG up to 30-kilometer deep in Syria and Iraq. To this end, it wastes no opportunity. On the other hand, the AKP government has a record of exploiting the security concerns of Turkish citizens for political gains. A new offensive against the YPG will bolster Erdoğan’s chances of getting reelected and cause a split in the coalition of the opposition parties by further marginalizing the pro-Kurdish HDP. In this vein, some political analysts even argue that a victory in Syria would effectively open the door to early presidential elections this fall, as the operation will certainly reflect well on the approval ratings of Erdoğan.