July 9, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey Weighs Action in Syria

• Turkish anxieties about Kurdish gains in northern Syria exceed its concerns about the Islamic State

• Any risk that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party will retain lasting control of territory in Syria along Turkey’s southern border will provoke a strong response from Ankara

• Talk of an armed Turkish incursion into Syria is once making the rounds and has been a focus of talks between the U.S. and Turkey in Ankara

• Although unlikely for now, the possibility of a Turkish military intervention into Syria remains real.


As the futures of Iraq and Syria move further into doubt, neighbors are weighing the long-term consequences for their own security and interests—Turkey more than most. Turkey has many concerns about the chaos in the region, and has already been directly affected by the influx of close to two million refugees, the economic disruption caused by the loss of two major trading partners, and the growing threat of extremism to its own internal security. But Turkey is a resilient country that has seen substantial economic growth almost every year this century and so far its leadership regards its current problems as manageable.

In one crucial respect, however, Turkey believes that it cannot sit back and wait to see what happens; it will deploy all means possible to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish entity friendly towards the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) along its southern border. Last year, this danger led to suggestions that President Erdogan was planning to order the Turkish army into northern Syria, and the debate in Ankara over the wisdom and timing of such a move has recently intensified. A denial by the Turkish Prime Minister on July 7 that Turkey had any such plans has quietened but not stifled the rumors. Gen. John Allen, President Obama’s special representative for the Iraq and Syria campaign, arrived in Ankara the same day for talks on Turkey’s role.

The Turkish fight with the PKK has a history that dates back to the 1980s, but peace talks in 2012—though now stalled—led to a ceasefire that continues to hold. However, recent Kurdish success against the so-called Islamic State in a string of villages and small towns in northern Syria has allowed the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), seen as anti-Turk and friendly to the PKK, to gain control over a contiguous area that now stretches for 250 miles along the Turkish/Syrian border. This has emboldened the PKK and worried the Turks, especially in light of complaints by Turkmen in the area that they are being forced from their homes by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PYD, in a form of ethnic cleansing. The Turkmen community has now decided to create its own militia and will undoubtedly seek—and receive—Turkish support.

Although PYD leaders have insisted that they have no intention of challenging the territorial integrity and ethnic composition of Syria, there is no doubt in their minds, nor anyone else’s, that the longer they retain control, the more Kurdish the area will become and the harder it will be to dislodge them. To reinforce the point, the PKK has threatened to resume its military campaign if Turkey makes any moves against the Syrian Kurds.

Grateful to find competent fighters against the Islamic State who are neither backed by Iran nor supporters of Bin Ladinism, the United States and its Western allies have provided crucial air support to Kurdish militias on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. Indeed without this support, the Kurds would have made little or no progress. But while the Turks have a good relationship with the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and could probably stomach a political settlement that gave the KRG more independence from Baghdad, their attitude towards the PYD is very different. Given a choice between having the Islamic State or Kurdish groups along its border with Syria, Turkey would almost certainly choose the former. Syrian Arabs would also unite against any Kurdish expansionism.

The discussions in Ankara between Gen. Allen and his Turkish interlocutors that ended last night focused on the long-standing Turkish idea of creating a limited ‘safe zone’ within Syria in the area between Azaz, a border town north of Aleppo, and Jarablus on the Euphrates river, in territory currently under Islamic State control. This would effectively prevent the YPG from linking Kurdish held areas in the east and west of the country, and provide a training ground and regrouping area for rebel forces, as well as a safe haven for internally displaced Syrians. In return for U.S. support, Turkey would concede to the long-standing U.S. request to use the Incirlik airbase and other military facilities in southern Turkey to launch bombing raids against the Islamic State. The talks ended without agreement.

Despite the size and competence of the Turkish Army, managing a safe zone inside Syria would be an enormous task with a strong possibility of mission creep. It could also inspire the Islamic State and its supporters to launch attacks within Turkey. Furthermore, it would increase the likelihood that U.S. ground forces would be drawn into an expanding fight of increased complexity. For these and other reasons related to the fallout from the recent Turkish elections, both the Turkish Army and Turkish public opinion are against any direct intervention. Nonetheless, President Erdogan is not a man for half-measures, and may yet decide that the threat of a hostile Kurdish statelet along Turkey’s southern border is sufficiently severe to merit such a high-risk move.


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