Turkish military operation in Syria: goals and forecasts
    Mikhail Shereshevskiy's scenario

    ANALYTICS  24 November 2022 - 16:25

    Mikhail Shereshevskiy

    On November 20, Türkiye launched a series of strikes against the Kurdish formations in northern Syria. Battle planes and drones were used in the attack. At the same time, Turkish troops are conducting operations against Kurds in northern Iraq.

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reported to have personally ordered strikes against Syria and Iraq and a military operation in those countries. He said Türkiye had the right to solve the problems in northern Syria on its own. World and Turkish media started to talk about preparations for a new major military operation of the Turkish Armed Forces in the North Syrian region. But it will be very difficult to carry out because of the US opposition.

    In the story of the Turkish strikes on Kurdish areas, the American leftists and left-liberals are faced with an insoluble contradiction so serious that it threatens to aggravate their mental disorders. On the one hand, leftists in the US support Rojava, the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Syria. On the other hand, they condemn everything to do with American foreign policy, especially American military expansion. But here's how it turns out: US troops in northern and eastern Syria are defending Rojava, to some extent holding Türkiye back. So what to do? Is the US military the good guys or the bad guys? Poor American leftists! They are already unstable and now they are in a difficult position.

    Whatever! Better to ask ourselves what is going on in Syria.

    Rojava is a Kurdish region of Syria, controlled by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) and its affiliated militias. The PKK is conducting terrorist operations to achieve the independence of "Turkish Kurdistan". The PKK also has great influence in northern and eastern Syria where Kurds predominate in numbers. The People's Self-Defence Units (YPG), a local Kurdish militia led by "cadros" - professional party officials and military officers of the PKK - operate in these regions. In addition, there are local Arab tribal militias that have sided with the YPG and are part of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) alliance with them.

    The PKK-YPG-SDF would like to turn northern Syria into a cohesive politico-military structure in opposition to Türkiye - an 800km-long fortified belt along the entire Turkish-Syrian border. Türkiye, which is at war with the PKK, sees such intentions as a threat. It would have attacked the area long ago and taken complete control of it if not for the US military. The latter is protecting the Kurds. Not all parts of Rojava, but most of it.

    Why would the Americans do this? The US initially relied on Kurdish militias and the PKK to fight ISIS. With US mediation, the SDF, an alliance between Kurdish militias and some Arab tribal militias, was also established. This PKK-YPG-SDF alliance did the bulk of the work against ISIS on the ground, while the US and other anti-ISIS coalition aircraft bombed ISIS fighters. As a result, after the defeat of the Islamic State, the PKK-YPG-SDF and the Americans controlled about a quarter of Syria's territory - all those areas from which the ISIS fighters were dislodged by the coalition, including the former ISIS capital of Raqqa. Incidentally, these are oil-rich areas. By relying on them, the Kurdish forces get additional sources of funding.

    Today ISIS is almost eliminated. The US army in northern and eastern Syria provides cover for Kurdish positions, pursuing several goals. The US fears the rise of Iran, its main rival in the Middle East. Iranian formations and pro-Iranian militias actively support the Assad regime in Damascus, with close ties to the Syrian leadership. If Assad's forces come to Rojava, the Iranians, the US adversaries, will also come there. Moreover, the United States fears the strengthening of Türkiye - Ankara's course has become too independent from Washington. If the Americans withdraw from Syria, Rojava and the whole of northern and northeastern Syria will be divided between Ankara and Tehran.

    It is important for the Kurdish structures in Syria on an official level to maintain their denial of ties with the PKK since the latter is officially recognised as a terrorist organisation in the US. And why can't the US remove the terrorist status from the PKK, with which it has been cooperating for a long time? So as not to anger Türkiye, an important NATO partner.

    Here is an open book of contradictions in US policy. The US wants to be friends with Türkiye but does not want to strengthen it too much for fear of growing Turkish influence in the world. That is why they are keeping Türkiye from attacking the Kurds and Rojava. The Americans would like to normalise relations with Iran (by making a nuclear deal with it - lifting sanctions in exchange for giving up the nuclear weapons programme), but they are afraid of strengthening the Iranian regime through new conquests. The US wants to maintain its role as the leader of world politics, and to do so it has to manoeuvre. Not to let its ally, Türkiye, get too strong, but also not to make it too angry.

    Easy to say and hard to do! There is no way to avoid Türkiye's discontent in such a situation. In the joint fight against ISIS, the Americans have piled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons into the Kurdish formations, including sniper rifles, anti-tank missile systems, and other weapons that are used by the PKK not only against ISIS remnants but also against the Turkish army. In addition, Kurdish military and political efforts are aimed at creating a belt, a bastion on the Syrian-Turkish border. Finally, the PKK and its allies have Syrian oil in their hands, which provides them with ample financial support. All of which have led to extreme irritation in Ankara.

    Ironically, this cheap crude is sold through a chain of intermediaries to Türkiye-controlled Syrian regions. From there, after refining and purification, it is resold to Türkiye. From Türkiye, in turn, a stream of Turkish goods flows to Rojava. Taking into consideration the fact that, for a long time, the Turkish lira has been widely circulating in the region (Turkish managers purposely transferred lira reserves to banks in northern Syria, in Ankara-controlled areas, ousting the Syrian national currency, which, moreover, depreciated long ago), one can say that northern Syria, including Kurdish areas, is gradually integrating into the Turkish economy. A huge part of the local population survives on the smuggling trade.

    This state of affairs is infuriating Damascus, as Syria's common economic space is breaking down. The economy has long been working to integrate the North Syrian regions and Türkiye into a common space, but the military and political conflict between Ankara and the PKK is working against such integration.

    The conflict persists. US actions that have dramatically strengthened the PKK have angered Türkiye and, in turn, contributed to that country's more independent stance. Today it is not based on loyalty to Washington and NATO, but on manoeuvring between the US and Russia. In addition, Türkiye has stepped up its onslaught on the Kurds.

    In 2015, Türkiye fought the PKK on its territory, and in 2016 Ankara decided to expand the war into Syria, claiming that the YPG was part of the PKK. Türkiye has conducted a series of operations in the last few years, successively occupying several areas in northern Syria - first Jarabulus, Azaz, and al-Bab - the northern Syrian cities, then Turkish troops and affiliated Syrian formations drove the PKK-YPG-SDF out of Kurdish canton Afrin, and later occupied the town and area of Ras al-Ain (Serekani).

    Türkiye is demanding a 30-kilometre security zone deep inside Syrian territory along the entire border. Not only would it want to dislodge PKK forces from the area, but it also intends to resettle around a million Syrian refugees there (their presence in Türkiye is met with a negative reaction from most Turkish citizens). Ankara would also like to establish a Syrian state, a kind of alternative to Damascus, governed by Syrian armed units consisting of Arabs and Turkmens, hostile to Assad and loyal to the Turks.

    But doing so is not easy. Most of Rojava is guarded by American troops. They are few, no more than a thousand, but their presence is important. On the other hand, Kurdish forces are cooperating to some extent with Russia and Damascus, and parts of Rojava are patrolled by the Russian military. Russia has so far not agreed to a new Turkish military operation in northern Syria.

    For the above reasons, Türkiye cannot simply go to all northern parts of Syria at once and solve the problem the way it would like to. It has to negotiate with the Americans, Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.

    However, after February 24, i.e. since the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, the military and political situation in the world is generally favourable for Türkiye and a window of opportunity for new operations against PKK in northern Syria is opening. On November 20, Turkish warplanes and drones launched a series of strikes against Kurds in northern Syria. The world media started talking about a possible Turkish strike on the town of Tal Rifat in the very near future to push Kurdish formations out of there.

    Darin Khalifa, a Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Reuters it was not yet clear whether Erdogan was planning an operation in Tal Rifat or further east, but the city's role was clear - it was a base for Kurdish military attacks on Turkish bases and pro-Turkish forces in Afrin.

    Türkiye now has a serious diplomatic capacity to carry out a special operation in Tal Rifat. The fact is that while the Western bloc would be unhappy with such an action, it is unlikely to threaten Ankara with serious retaliation. After all, at the moment the US and Europe desperately need the support of Türkiye, a NATO member, to secure the entry of Sweden and Finland into the alliance. Indeed, the Americans are trying to rally allies against the backdrop of the confrontation in Ukraine. They cannot afford to quarrel with Türkiye today.

    Russia, for its part, while under sanctions, sees Türkiye as a safe haven for its transit trade and investment and, if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, has already transferred tens of billions of dollars to Türkiye. Nor is it interested in escalating the conflict with Ankara. In addition, Moscow has offered the Kurds to move under the wing of the Assad regime allied with Russia in exchange for military protection, and they have been unwilling to do so.

    The likelihood of a Turkish operation in northern Syria is high today. However, the Middle East is unpredictable. The possibility of such an operation has been talked about for months, but Türkiye is not yet carrying it out, limiting itself to air and artillery strikes. There seems to be some behind-the-scenes bargaining going on - talks between Washington, Ankara, and Moscow about another partition of Syrian territory. This time, however, Türkiye has a window of opportunity to push further into Syria to eliminate the threat to its own territory from there.


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