How will Türkiye address its security concerns in northern Syria?
    Echo of new clashes in the Middle East

    ANALYTICS  29 November 2022 - 12:41

    Fuad Shahbazov

    On November 26, the Turkish government officially announced that all is set for another round of counter-terrorist operations in northern Syria following cross-border hostilities between Ankara and Kurdish-led regional forces. Türkiye’s upcoming ground operation is a response to the deadly November 13 Istanbul bombing that Ankara believes was perpetrated by Syria’s Kurdish-led YPG, though the latter has denied involvement.

    For several years Türkiye has attempted to establish a "security line" that would ultimately ensure the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq. The operation dubbed Operation Claw Sword started with massive artillery and drone attacks on Kurdish-controlled cities in northern Syria, namely Kobani, Derik, Darbasiyah, Ayn Issa, and Sinjar province. While these cities appear to be key cities where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) retains influence, Ankara justifies air strikes as a preventive measure against violent terrorist organizations. Although Ankara's anti-terror sentiments gained substantial public support at home, it again caused a war of words with the US. The White House attempts to push Ankara to abstain from the launch of a ground operation as it will be turned directly against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and YPG groups.

    The SDF has long been the go-to on-the-ground partner of the US and Western coalition against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) radical terrorist organization based in Syria and Iraq, while Ankara dubs it an arm of its arch-rival PKK. As of 2022, some 900 US troops remain on the ground in Syria, most of them in support of the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). The general narrative of official Ankara is that “Operation Claw-Sword” aimed to “neutralize PKK/KCK/YPG and other terrorist elements [and] eliminate terrorist attacks on our people and security forces from northern Syria.”

    Interestingly Ankara's tone against the local Kurdish groups dislocated in northern Syria seemed not to bother Russia and the Syrian government, as Assad's government did not publicly react to the upcoming operation but tended to watch the process silently. This could be explained by the fact that Assad's leading partner and security patron Russia is exhausted with the raging war in Ukraine and scarce military resources to support Damascus in its possible retaliation against Türkiye.

    Notwithstanding, Moscow is also not that much happy with Ankara's looming ground operation. In this vein, Russia is mainly concerned with the possible boomerang effect stemming from the Turkish military operation in Syria, as it may undermine the relative stability Moscow reached within these years. Hence, Russia called for Türkiye to exercise "restraint" and warned against "destabilizing" Syria, though it expressed "respect to Türkiye's concerns regarding its own security."

    On the other hand, the ground operation may scupper long-awaited plans for a Syrian-Turkish rapprochement, which was initiated when the head of Türkiye’s intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, met with the head of Syria’s national intelligence service, Ali Mamlouk, in September. This meeting was brokered by Russia in a bid to push for the Ankara-Damascus normalization process and thus, to increase vanishing influence in the region.

    However, the vis-à-vis meeting of Assad and Erdogan is still far from happening sometime soon, considering Turkish President's top aide Ibrahim Kalin's recent statement that "there is no political ground for both leaders' meeting." such a shift in rhetoric appeared to suit Erdogan’s government as he also stressed that normalization could happen with the Assad regime. Even if a thaw happens in Ankara-Damascus relations, Moscow will likely take an observer role in the process as it is stuck on the Ukraine front.

    Undoubtedly, one of the main targets of Ankara's looming operation will be Kobane, a Kurdish-dominant town in Syria, which is also a permanent dislocation point for the SDF forces. Nonetheless, the SDF forces rely on Russia and the US's firm stance regarding the upcoming ground operation that could wipe out the Kurdish units in the area. Hence, the concern of the SDF is attributed to the fact that a new ground operation in that area may torpedo US-Russia joint efforts to root out the remnants of the Islamic state.

    Although the US warns Türkiye against possible cross-border conflict as a result of the ground operation, Washington will not be taking direct action to prevent it. Moreover, Moscow quickly follows suit by issuing only statements to restrain Ankara, with no real action taken to exert pressure on it. Given Moscow-Ankara's close partnership over the Ukraine issue, it is also unlikely that Russia will attempt to alienate President Erdogan amid his intention to launch a ground operation in Syria.


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