Analysis: Is Turkey set for a new military operation in Syria?
Sunday’s Istanbul bombing, which Turkey has blamed on the PKK, could lead to Ankara fulfilling its threat to attack what it considers to be the group’s affiliates in Syria.
Istanbul, Turkey – “We may come suddenly one night.”
It is a sentence that has served as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rallying cry for several years, particularly since he launched three military campaigns in northern Syria in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Back in June, Erdogan said that a new Turkish military operation was being planned, which would target areas of the Syrian-Turkish border, such as Kobane (Ayn al-Arab), Tal Rifaat and Manbij, controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey regards as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, despite the operation seeming imminent at the time, it has not happened, with Russia, Iran and the West pushing back against Turkey’s plans.
Sunday’s deadly bomb attack in Istanbul has now prompted speculation about whether Erdogan will carry through on his warning.
Turkish authorities have said that the preliminary findings of the investigation into the attack that killed six civilians in Istiklal Avenue, one of Istanbul’s busiest and most touristic areas, point to the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), whose forces predominantly make up the SDF. The PKK is a designated “terrorist” group in Turkey, the United States and the European Union, but the SDF is backed by the US, among others, as part of the fight against ISIL (ISIS).
The suspected bomber’s reported confessions have boosted the argument of those in Turkey who have been pushing for a military operation.
A Syrian Arab from Deir Az Zor, she has reportedly said that she was trained by the YPG in the Syrian town of Manbij, another target of any future Turkish military operation, for two months before carrying out the lethal attack.
But the PKK has denied the attack, claiming that it would not target civilians, despite historical evidence to the contrary.
Instead, supporters of the PKK believe that Ankara will use the bombing to justify its long-awaited military campaign in Kobane.
Amid rising nationalist and anti-Syrian refugee sentiments before Turkey’s June 2023 elections, Turkey’s interior minister Suleyman Soylu declared that the Istanbul attack would be avenged, raising the prospect of a military incursion in Syria, while speaking to the press after the attack.
Turkish Intelligence retired Colonel Coskun Basbug said that Sunday’s attack did not currently portend a return to the 2015-2017 period, when Turkey suffered repeated attacks by PKK-affiliated groups and ISIL.
As to whether a new military operation is on the cards, Basbug thought the time might not be right.
“Turkey has the necessary capacity and resources to launch this operation in northern Syria,” Basbug told Al Jazeera.
However, there are other players on the field, including the US, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government.
“Ankara has always wished for all parties to reach an agreement [on a military operation in northern Syria], but no one will give you that, especially not the US,” Basbug said.
The US, a NATO ally of Turkey, has found itself with a difficult balancing act, attempting to restrain Ankara from attacking the SDF, while also understanding Turkey’s security concerns.
Retired US Colonel Richard Outzen said it would be very difficult for any country, including the US, to argue against Turkey’s right to self-defence, but that the US and EU’s reactions are based on their own national interests.
“I understand why Turkey doesn’t want the YPG or PKK by its borders,” Outzen said. “But the US position is that there should not be any operation that would disrupt US counter-terror and stabilisation efforts in Syria.”
Outzen referred to the coordination between the US and Turkey during Turkey’s 2019 Operation Peace Spring, which targeted Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in northern Syria.
According to Outzen, Turkey was careful to avoid any danger to US troops based in northern Syria during that operation.
“There are still US troops in northern Syria, and I must assume Turkey will pay equal attention,” Outzen added.
The US is not the only international power Turkey has to worry about.
Russia has been supporting the Syrian government, and has fought against Turkey’s allies in the Syrian opposition. Moscow also has maintained a strong relationship with the SDF.
According to Halil Ibrahim Albayrak, a Turkish intelligence and security expert, Russia and the US are effectively Turkey’s de facto neighbours on its southern border with Syria.
That poses a problem to Turkey, which feels that both Moscow and Washington have not adhered to promises that Ankara’s security concerns would be considered.
“Turkey’s definition of a threat, specifically in Syria and Iraq, has always been clear, and it has explained this numerous times to both the US and Russia,” Albayrak told Al Jazeera. “No other country in the international system has been as vulnerable to terrorism as Turkey. We have compelling reasons to conduct a military operation. No EU country has an 800-kilometere-long [500-mile-long] border that breeds terrorism.”
In Turkey’s eyes, military operations against the PKK and its affiliated groups have already reaped rewards, not just in Syria, but also in Iraq.
According to both Basbug and Albayrak, the PKK’s presence in Iraq has nearly vanished as a result of those operations in the north of the country.
However, Basbug believed that Turkey will not launch a campaign in Syria until its continuing campaign in Iraq is completed.
Instead, he expected limited attacks against the YPG in Syria to continue, until a full-scale operation is required.
“We have almost come to the end of the operation in Iraq,” said Basbug. “When it’s complete, we’ll have disrupted the link between the PKK in Iraq and the YPG in Syria. [Therefore] a full-scale operation, which we are currently capable of, may not even be necessary.”