Why is Turkey so insistent on an incursion into Syria?

November 24, 2022
by Enes Esen, published on 24 November 2022
Why is Turkey so insistent on an incursion into Syria?

Turkey’s warplanes have been bombarding the YPG at least 45 km deep in Syria and the PKK 140 km deep in Iraq since the morning of the 20th of November in retaliation to the explosion in Istanbul that left six people dead and 81 injured on the 13th of November. “Eliminating terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq that pose a threat to our country is the main duty of our security forces right now. There is no way the strikes in Syria and Iraq will be limited to air forces,” President Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview on the 21st of November. The next day, Erdoğan reiterated his resolution to launch a new incursion in Syria with tanks and soldiers in a public speech broadcast live by several TV stations. Erdoğan announced the following day that Turkey, which has partially established a safe zone throughout its southern border, will complete the rest of it by cleansing the Tal Rifaat, Manbij and Kobani areas, pointing to the targets of the new incursion. Turkey has already carried out four large-scale military operations in Syria in the last six years. And yet it wants to launch another large-scale military campaign. There are some reasons why Turkey is concerned with northern Syria nowadays.

First of all, the main difference between the stances of Turkey and the West over an operation in Syria stems from their perception of the YPG. Ankara considers the YPG as an extension of the PKK - a terrorist organization according to Turkey, the US and EU countries- that has to be immediately quashed before it settles down along its southern border. Besides, it fears that an autonomous Kurdish entity led by the YPG could set an ominous example for Turkey’s large Kurdish community. Hence, at least a 30-kilometre-deep buffer zone in Syria populated by the Arabs that separates the Turkish border and the YPG is crucial to prevent the spread of this entity towards Turkey. On the other hand, despite their common origins, Western countries view the YPG as a separate organization from the PKK, which came in handy in the fight against ISIS. Some 10,000 ISIS fighters and their families are still kept in detention camps in the YPG-controlled territories. The Western authorities worry that the loosening of control of the YPG over the detention camps could lead to the dispersal of these ISIS fighters worldwide. It is hard to reconcile these divergent views.

Second, Turkey’s current decision-making mechanism is under the influence of Eurasianists who favor an alignment of Turkey’s foreign policy with Russia. This faction believes that if Turkey pursues a military operation despite the US objection and faces the consequences, it will damage Turkey’s strained relations with the US. And a worsening of Turkey’s relations with the West will benefit Russia. As expected, the US has already expressed its objections to a new incursion against the YPG. “We urge de-escalation in Syria to protect civilian life and support the common goal of defeating ISIS. We continue to oppose any uncoordinated military action in Iraq that violates Iraq’s sovereignty.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price recently said. Thus, it is no surprise to see the headline of a Turkish daily loosely affiliated with Eurasianists read on the 22nd of November, "Do not listen to the Americans, air or ground operation, end the heinous terror."

In the same vein, Turkish Interior Minister Soylu rejected the condolences of the US Embassy in Turkey over the deadly blast, claiming that the United States is "feeding the terrorist organizations" that carried out the explosion in Istanbul. Other AKP politicians did not follow suit and did not back Soylu’s remarks. Nonetheless, given the playbook of the AKP, it is highly likely that his remarks were government-sanctioned, and Soylu was assigned to play the bad guy. 

Third and most important, the ruling coalition in Turkey considers a cross-border military operation a good election campaign strategy, scheduled to take place in June 2023. A successful military operation in Syria against the YPG will definitely boost Erdoğan’s popularity among his constituents and divert attention from the economic crisis in Turkey. Moreover, the opposition alliance needs the backing of the pro-Kurdish HDP to win the elections. If the opposition alliance supports the invasion - and some of its members will do- they cannot so readily count on the backing of the HDP in the presidential bid. On top of that, a heavy-handed policy against the Kurds has paid well for the AKP and its allies since the 2015 elections. Why change a strategy that has worked? 

Should a new ground military operation take place, it will probably target the territory under the Russian sphere of influence in Syria. Russia’s hands are tied in Ukraine, and it is in no position to alienate one of its most trustworthy allies in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. Accordingly, Erdoğan has mentioned Tal Rifaat, Manbij and Kobani as the potential targets of the new incursion. Nonetheless, this is not the first time Erdoğan expressed similar thoughts. "We are going into the new phase of our determination to form a 30-km deep safe zone along our southern border. We will clear Tal Rifaat and Manbij of terrorists, and we will do the same to other regions step-by-step," Erdogan said in June. He had to cancel his plans because the US, Russia, and Iran did not consent to a Turkish incursion. 

There is a likelihood that Erdoğan’s government will soon launch a ground military operation in northern Syria against the U.S.-backed YPG. Turkey’s security apparatus assesses an entity led by an irredentist Kurdish entity as an existential threat to Turkey. And it deems military operations to Syria necessary to cut off “the head of the snake.” A pro-Russian fraction within the government considers these operations as a way to undermine Turkey’s relations with the West. Strategists within the AKP government weigh the consequences of such a move for the elections. Some likely have concluded that Erdoğan needs to bolster his image as a leader by waging a military campaign against “Turkey’s enemies within and abroad.” Nonetheless, we do not know yet if Erdoğan launches a ground invasion in Syria or not. These conditions were there before, but Erdoğan did not pursue an incursion. The difference, however, between his earlier threats and the current ones is that the presidential elections are near. Despite its democratic deficiencies, elections still matter the most in Turkey.

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