Turkey's push into Syria: Even limited objectives carry risk of backlash

Turkey's 'hard-powered' move onto Syria's complex battlefield – to push back ISIS and curtail Kurdish ambitions – could ensnare its forces and create growing risk of a backlash.

Ismail Coskun/AP
A Turkish tank is stationed near the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey will press ahead with its military operations in Syria until the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants no longer pose a security threat.

When Turkey’s military campaign launched in dramatic fashion a week ago, with tanks and allied Syrian rebels seizing a key border town from Islamic State (IS) within hours, the question was how much Turkey might change the balance of power in Syria’s war.

Now it is clear that Turkey’s move was a limited, two-prong approach: Push IS militants back from the border after their attacks in Turkey; and prevent Syrian Kurds from linking cantons under their control into a de facto Kurdish statelet.

But even such limited objectives carry risks that analysts say can grow with each passing day, depending on how NATO-ally Turkey chooses to navigate the potential Syrian quagmire.

On Tuesday the US military announced a loose agreement between Turkish-backed forces and the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia that Washington hopes will end skirmishes between the two. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on Monday had called on both sides “to not fight with one another” and instead focus on fighting IS.

But friction with the United States is just one issue for Turkey in a complex, multilayered battlefield. Other risks, analysts say, include inciting more regional Kurdish resentment that could worsen Turkey’s fight against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants inside Turkey, and military overreach inside Syria that yields more casualties than Turks are ready to bear.

Those risks are separate from Turkey’s broader strategic desire to see the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule – an aim that today seems all but forgotten as Turkey focuses instead on Kurdish autonomy and IS as bigger threats.

“There is an almost inevitable escalatory track in terms of [Turkey’s] troop commitment and the military’s presence in Syria,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior policy fellow in Brussels with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“So much will depend on what the Turks achieve in the next weeks or months, because at the moment it seems that there is no exit strategy,” says Mr. Barnes-Dacey. “Reliance on Syrian rebels who have not proven capable of holding territory in the past – and who are likely to be dependent on a continued Turkish presence – could quickly turn into a more problematic and costly exercise.

“Turkey is in a very precarious situation, and there are big question marks about the sustainability of a combined anti-Kurdish, anti-Assad front,” says Barnes-Dacey. “Ultimately, something will have to give – and it’s more likely to be the broader Syrian question.”

No 'permission' for Kurdish state

Turkey says it has killed 25 “terrorists” in villages in its own airstrikes, and lost one soldier to a YPG rocket. A Syrian group that compiles casualty reports stated that 41 civilians were killed Sunday in the same areas.

Turkish media reported Tuesday that 108 artillery strikes had been carried out in the previous 24 hours, and that the day before, 10 villages in the area of the captured IS town of Jarablus had been “cleansed.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said military action will continue “until there is no longer a threat” – from IS or from Kurdish militias that Turkey considers terrorists. Turkey is “determined to take steps to guarantee its citizens’ security,” he said Tuesday in a message to mark Turkey’s annual Victory Day.

“The fight is the greatest source of our confidence,” said Mr. Erdogan. “We did not give permission for the establishment of a Kurdish state in Syria."

That leaves open Turkey’s new hard-power commitment to the five-year Syria war, in which Ankara has long-indicated that thwarting Syrian Kurdish ambitions of autonomy – which could provide safe haven for the PKK – take priority over undermining Mr. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies on the battlefield.

For Turkey, clearing IS from the border is a “great benefit,” but it is “also their biggest weakness,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

New opportunities for IS

“Exacerbating Kurdish anger at the Turkish government has boomerang effects in the southeast [of Turkey], and helps sustain that [PKK] insurgency,” says Mr. Stein. “IS [also] has a pretty strong foothold inside of Turkey, and it doesn’t take much to put together the types of attacks that they have been carrying out.”

It’s a Catch-22, he says: Turkish troops will almost certainly have to stay on the ground in Syria, “because they can’t risk IS launching a counterattack and their Turkey-backed rebels losing territory – that would be embarrassing, and politically unwise,” says Stein.

Likewise, the longer they stay, he says, “the more potshots from an antitank missile pop up, and if they push up past the border you have to start worrying about IEDs.”

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has declared as “unacceptable and a source of deep concern” the fighting over the weekend between Turkey and Turkish-backed forces and the US-backed YPG militia, which was meant to have withdrawn to the east of the Euphrates River, according to US and Turkish officials.

“As ISIS watches its enemies fight each other, that will present new opportunities for it to move forward and launch new attacks and seize new territory,” says Barnes-Dacey, the Brussels analyst.

“For the first time in a long time, Turkey is in play in a meaningful way in this conflict, but the direction of travel is uncertain,” he says. “I think there are limited ambitions, and perhaps more importantly, capabilities, in terms of what the Turks can achieve with this intervention.”

How long to stick around

The Turkish media have been full of reports on the operation and its significance.

The incursion into Jarablus is a first step “toward a broader geography of anticipated military action” for Turkey, which will enhance Ankara’s “right to speak on drawing the map in Syria” in the future, wrote Ismail Numan Telci of Sakarya University in the pro-government Star magazine.

But holding on to such influence will not be easy, even though Turkey has decades of experience with cross-border operations in northern Iraq – many of them much bigger and pushing deeper – in pursuit of the PKK.

Those operations also exposed logistical weaknesses, and often ended within weeks, notes Stein. If clearing the border of IS “ends up being their ambition,” then Operation Euphrates Shield will be “relatively easy.”

“The question then becomes, how long do you stick around? And I don’t think they have an answer to that,” says Stein. “The cost of waging an insurgency is next to nothing, compared to occupying even a small strip of territory.… It’s not that the military isn’t prepared to take casualties, it’s that the politics are not ready to sustain something like this – even if the losses are comparatively small.”

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