Turkish media circles, especially those close to the government, are heavily discussing a Turkish military operation against, “terrorist networks.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself spoke of an impending military operation along the lines of “Operation Euphrates Shield, ” an operation that concluded in late March. The Turkish statement was accompanied by news of a Turkish military build-up and reinforcements on the Syrian border in Kilis and Hatay. But the important question here is whether America will pull the rug out from its most important allies in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Will the United States allow Turkey to take control of the city of Afrin, the second most important region for Syrian Kurds after Qamishli?
Turkey certainly wants to increase its influence in Syria, and is clearly working to diminish the role of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has had a long history of conflict with successive Turkish governments. The military buildup of Kilis and Hatay are directly across from zones controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Afrin region, opposite the administrative boundaries of Idlib Governorate. And additional forces have spread into Azaz in the northern Aleppo countryside.
It seems complex and highly unlikely that the US will allow Turkey to take control of Afrin, especially since the US administration continues to call on its allies to temporarily set aside their disputes and focus on defeating ISIS. Yet an examination of Turkish statements throughout the Syrian Revolution shows the following pattern: Turkey intentionally releases various statements; Turkey then monitors the reactions of the assorted influential powers in Syria. Then, it makes its move based upon those reactions, while avoiding entering into direct confrontation with those powers.
Even with these strategies, actions by Turkey are not always successful. The United States has refused all of Turkey’s offers regarding the participation of the Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces in the battle to liberate Raqqa from ISIS. Those forces would have entered from Turkey to Tal Abyad, and from there to Raqqa, to participate in the battle. This is in addition to the deployment of Russian forces into the Afrin region last March, at the request of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and for the same reason: their fear of a Turkish military operation towards Afrin.
Given these complications, Turkey’s options for protecting its interests in the region are limited. Its core interest is to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state on its borders, which would threaten Turkey’s national security. Accordingly, the Turkish battle would likely be limited to the cities of Tal Rifaat and the other Arab villages, which the SDF seized at the end of 2015. Approximately two hundred thousand people from those communities are now scattered among the refugee camps in the northern Aleppo countryside. It is expected that the military operation the Turkish president discussed will target Idlib governorate. At the very least, in the unlikely event that a battle should begin near Afrin, Idlib would be a part of that operation.
Idlib is the one governorate where the opposition is completely in control, and it is the region that absorbed the successive waves of displaced people from various areas of Syria. But the presence and spread of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, formerly al-Nusra Front) provides a pretext for all powers to intervene there. This is the same pretext that the Russians, the Iranians, and Syrian regime forces have used over and over again across the country, even in areas where al-Nusra’s presence is limited, like Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta. Therefore, Turkey believes that there are several reasons why it is critical to put an end to al-Nusra Front’s presence in Idlib.
First, it is due to the large number of refugees entering and remaining in Turkey, approximately three million according to recent statistics. Turkey cannot handle another large wave of refugees, which is possible if the regime and its allies attacks the opposition in Idlib and western Aleppo countryside. The expansion of Turkish forces into Idlib could prevent future attacks. It is against this background that Turkey is taking advantage of its support to Qatar in the Gulf crisis; this allows Turkey to increase its influence in Syria and to intervene in Idlib without the likelihood of facing any opposition from Qatar’s local allies, whether it be Ahrar al-Sham, which is directly supported by Qatar, or Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is heavily influenced by Qatar. Turkey has already worked to diminish Qatari influence in the northern Aleppo countryside over the past month. It did so by putting an end to the presence of several factions supported by Qatar, like the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, an affiliate of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
Second, Turkey aims to prevent the spread of SDF fighters along the border by entering into Idlib; beginning with Afrin, and then west to the towns and countryside of Aleppo, and Idlib. Commander of Jaysh al-Thuwar which is part of the SDF, “Abu Ali Bard,” previously indicated this military action. Siban Hamo, the spokesman for the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units,” (YPG) made the same statement that following the battle of Raqqa; there could be an invasion of Idlib.
Third, if Turkey were to invade the Idlib region, it would not face opposition from residents. Refugees that previously experienced stability due to Turkey’s role in the northern Aleppo countryside. Turkey had relative success on several fronts which allowed many refugees to return to homes and jobs they had left years ago.
Turkey’s invasion of Idlib could prevent the spread of forces opposed to the revolution and their entry into the region of Idlib, whether that be Assad’s forces or the SDF. On the other hand, it could weaken the decision-making capabilities of the revolution’s military forces and could limit the ability to initiate large and important battles. That is what happened in the northern Aleppo countryside, where the military factions generally could not deviate from Turkish commands to initiate a battle, except in a limited number of cases or in specific types of small operations.
In the end, no matter the size of the shared interests between Turkey and the Syrian opposition, no matter the extent of Turkey’s historical, social, and religious role in Syria, it remains part of a comprehensive international system; a system that is governed by state interests. Countries exploit every possible circumstance and variable to reinforce their security and pursue their interests. Therefore, Turkish interests will dominate any decision that Turkey makes and any agreement that it concludes.
Molham Ekaidi is an engineer from Aleppo. He previously was a senior official in the Free Syrian Army.