Beginning nearly two months ago, Turkey’s campaign in Syria continues to complicate the situation in the war-torn country.
Recently, Turkey declared victory in its effort to take the northern city of Afrin. The Turkish flag was raised over the city after confirmation that all Kurdish forces had left the city.
Turkey has now accomplished its initial objective. The question on the table now is what the long-term trajectory of Turkey’s strategy in the country will be.
With the complexity of the conflicts and stakeholders present in Syria, there are several important factors Turkey’s leadership will have to consider moving forward, not the least of which is its relationship with other allies present in the country.
Turkey has indicated it plans to expand its Syria campaign even further. Turkish president Recep Erdogan told a press conference on March 19th that Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces would press eastward, targeting territory that includes the town of Kobani, a location that has become a symbol of the fight against jihadists with a stake in the country, such as the Islamic State, as well as the town of Qamishli, where the Syrian government controls an airport and a security zone. Also a potential target is the town of Manbij, a location 34km from the Turkish border. US and Kurdish forces are jointly responsible for security in Manbij, a fact which further raises the concern of confrontation between American and Turkish forces. Erdogan even threatened to target Iraq's Sinjar mountains, a long, mountainous ridge a few kilometers from Syria’s border used by Kurdish fighters to move between the two countries and transport equipment, munitions, and men.
In other words, now that Turkey has committed its forces to Syria, it intends to go all the way in rooting out Kurdish strongholds in all of Northern Syria, and perhaps in the broader region.
In truth, however, Turkey’s war cries may be more like empty threats than actual implementable battle plans. Kurdish fighting groups such as the US-backed People's Protection Units (YPG) have made it clear that they have no intention of backing down, despite their setback in Afrin. Othman Sheikh Issa, the co-chair of the Kurdish Afrin executive council, said in a televised statement on March 18th, “[Our] forces will strike the positions of the Turkish enemy and its mercenaries at every opportunity." In other words, the Kurds intend to change their strategy in combating invading Turkish forces and shift from direct confrontation to guerrilla tactics in their battles against the Turkish military. With years of experience under their belts of waging an insurgency in southern Turkey and other places, taking more territory from YPG may be an impractical long-term strategy for Turkey. As many observers have noted, the strong Kurdish advantage in the scenario of a guerilla-like war of attrition means it would be “very difficult” to carry out practically speaking.
Another risk Turkey faces if it continues to expand its Syrian incursion may be having to confront Syrian government forces. Last month a large contingent of Syrian forces left Aleppo to join up with Kurdish forces in Afrin in what state-run Syrian TV said was an initiative to help “defend our people against the Turkish aggression.” Due to the quick retreat of YPG units and the subsequent speedy takeover of Afrin, there was never really a battle in which Turks had to face Syrians. However, the danger of a clash between Assad and Erdogan still lurks, which would add yet another dimension to the conflict in Syria. On the one hand, Erdogan has made it clear his willingness to go all the way. The Turkish president went so far as to threaten to declare war against Syria’s ruling Assad regime if they interfered with their campaign aimed against the Kurds. Conversely, Turkish leaders have also tried to reach out to their Syrian counterparts in an attempt to mitigate the effects of Turkey’s presence in the country. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters a few weeks ago that Turkish intelligence officials “may establish direct or indirect contact when it is required to solve certain problems under extraordinary conditions.” Turkey’s attempt to mitigate controversy with the Syrian regime underscores the two-sided strategy game Ankara needs to implement: achieve the maximum amount of progress in disabling its Kurdish enemy, without triggering opposition from any other player in the country.
Even if Turkey manages to avoid all direct confrontation with other stakeholders in Syria, it is unavoidable that its actions will have substantial consequences for the broader conflict in the country. One of the more troubling consequences is the relieving of pressure on ISIS in eastern Syria that has resulted from drawing Kurdish fighters away from key areas to meet the Turkish advance. This more than anything else may prove to be a key factor in increased US opposition to Turkey’s current campaign.