A month after Turkey launched an invasion of northeast Syria the situation is still unsettled, with several hundred thousand people either displaced or close to the new frontline of fighting, and the US, Russia, Turkey, the Syrian regime, and the Syrian Democratic Forces all vying for control. Turkey has asserted that its campaign is aimed at fighting “terrorism” but weeks of conflict the open-ended conflict has brought questions about why NATO member Turkey is using ill-disciplined Syrian rebel groups to do the fighting, and what it’s real goals are.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to attack eastern Syria for years, upping his rhetoric incrementally. This has included claims Turkey will return eastern Syria to its “true owners,” and “crush the terrorists heads” in the operation. When Ankara says “terrorists” it generally means both the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces as well as other linked groups such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and civilian wings of these groups, such as the PYD.
Ankara says that its goal is not to occupy Syria forever, but to send back several million Syrian refugees and to ensure their “safety.” Ankara even showed a map to the UN General Assembly in September, illustrating a corridor of land up to 30 kilometres deep in Syria. It claims it will invest $27 billion in this area to build hundreds of towns for Syrians, mostly Arabs who fled other areas of Syria to Turkey. US diplomat William Roebuck, the Deputy Special Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, warned in a memo to staff earlier this month that Turkey’s operation and plans look like “ethnic cleansing.”
Turkey’s invasion was made possible by the US withdrawal on October 6. US President Donald J. Trump had warned since December 2018 that the US would leave Syria. Washington, however, has also wanted to continue working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group it helped create in 2015 with the help of the YPG, to defeat ISIS. Despite feeling the US enabled Turkey’s bombing of their areas, the SDF is still open to working with the US and the West against extremists. ISIS is not defeated totally, its sleeper cells still carry out attacks in Syria and it has an estimated 15,000 fighters across Syria and Iraq. The SDF hold another 10,000 ISIS fighters in detention facilities. The SDF were effective at defeated ISIS and the US helped train almost 100,000 SDF fighters and internal security forces since 2016. However, when faced with NATO-member Turkey’s threats to invade, Trump decided to move US forces aside. After the invasion began and US diplomats realised the extent of the instability unfolding, the US returned to Syria with a plan to secure oil and broker a ceasefire.
The US decision has caused a loss of faith in the US presence in Syria and emboldened Russia and other countries that believe the US trajectory is towards reducing engagement in the region. Russia was quick to work on an agreement with Erdogan at Sochi on October 22. The Russian agreement looks similar to the US “security mechanism” agreed in August. This is evidence Turkey prefers Russia to the US. Now Russian vehicles are conducting military patrols with Turkey, the fourth took place on November 11, and Russian-backed Syrian regime troops are deployed in areas formerly held by the SDF.
Russia’s track record on these kinds of agreements is clear. In Idlib, an agreement in September 2018 has resulted in continued low-level fighting. Russia’s model in eastern Ukraine was the same. Russia and Turkey benefit from low-level fighting because Turkey has used what the US called “Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.” to fight the Syrian regime and SDF. The US says Turkish-backed militias have extremist connections. Videos of their atrocities have shown executions of prisoners. Many of the Turkish-backed militias sent into Syria express hate towards Kurds and what they call “infidels.”
Turkey’s role in Syria, and the initial backing it received from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg due to its “security concerns” raises questions about NATO’s mission. NATO was founded with a commitment toward democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes. In eastern Syria more than 200,000 have been displaced by fighting, with no right of return, and civilians have shown they reject Turkey’s presence through protests and throwing objects at Turkish vehicles. Turkey has shown NATO no evidence of attacks from eastern Syria and the US presence ensured that the SDF would not harm Turkey. Rather than resolving things through peaceful resolutions, Turkey pressed ahead with a military offensive into one of the last remaining peaceful areas of Syria, an area still recovering from the ravages of ISIS. Since the attack, there have been renewed terror threats, an attack in Tel Abyad, Qamishli and on Armenian priests, as well as the constant fighting. Rather than protecting civilians from fleeing, while targeting only PKK members, Turkey’s offensive resulted in a humanitarian crisis and its proxies committed human rights abuses.
Turkey has leveraged its invasion to work more closely with Russia. It signed a deal for the S-400 air defence system from Moscow in 2017 and may be seeking warplanes as well. Ankara is hedging its bets with Washington, seeking to get as much as it can from both. However, the Turkish-Russian relationship has sidelined Syrians while empowering authoritarian elements.
Turkey openly threatens the European Union with sending refugees to Europe if its operation is critiqued, as if the refugees are just pawns to be moved either to eastern Syria to cement a demographic change in a Kurdish area, or to be forced to Europe. This is in violation of international concepts regarding the treatment of refugees. Refugees cannot be used as a weapon to blackmail other countries. Turkey, which claims to champion the Syrian opposition and refugees comes out of eastern Syria appearing to empower extremists and use refugees against NATO allies while working more closely with Russia on Syria.
This comes in a wider context of Turkey working with Russia on energy deals while drilling off of Cyprus. It is part of Ankara’s foreign policy that prefers ceasefire agreements only with authoritarian regimes, and weapons systems from Moscow, while encouraging Syrian rebel groups to attack Kurdish areas, destabilising them and potentially spreading the instability that fuels ISIS. Turkey began forcibly repatriating ISIS members on November 11, without any plan to deal with the ISIS members in Syria. As its offensive weakens the SDF, the main force containing ISIS, Ankara’s role emboldens all the wrong elements and erode stability in the one Western-backed stable part of Syria.