Is Turkey preparing to invade Syria?
Giuseppe Didonna 3 July 2015

The idea that there is a plan to invade Syrian territory, with the stated objective of creating a buffer zone measuring 100 km in length and between 10 and 1 km wide, is becoming increasingly evident in Turkey. According to Ankara, this would become an area that would not only isolate Turkey from dangers linked to the ‘caliphate’s’ advance, but also address the enormous humanitarian crisis linked to the flow of refugees arriving from Syria. Over the past four years about two million Syrians have fled to Turkey.

On the other hand, it cannot be a coincidence that this escalation, which has so far led Ankara to make certain decisions, started the day after the battle of Tel Abyad, at the end of which, on June 16th, Kurdish troops from the YPG, the military arm of the Syrian Kurdish Party, defeated ISIS and took full control of the city.

The outcome of the battle, certainly affected by air support provided by the Americans, sparked a series of reactions in Ankara, with  Erdogan first accusing the Kurds of “ethnic cleansing” regards to the Arab and Turkmen inhabitants of the province of Tel Abyad, to then describe the YPG fighters as “real terrorists” because they are associated to the PKK’s Kurdish separatists, who have been at war with Ankara since 1984.

A few days later, the Turkish president ruled that he “would never ever allow the creation of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border”, a prospect capable of invigorating the nationalist demands of about 20 million Turkish Kurds and frightening Ankara significantly, since the Kurds joined parliament less than a month ago. The HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, considered the PKK’s political branch, won 13 per cent of the votes in the general election, more than the 10 per cent threshold  required to enter parliament, with 80 of the 550 seats in Turkey’s single chamber parliament.

The area chosen by Ankara as the theatre for ongoing military operations is that of Oncupinar/Bab al Hawa and Cilevgozu/Bab al Salam, with a deployment of Turkish tanks that would end up including the area from Kobane to Jarablus, The only province with an Arab majority in the strip of land that goes from the Iraqi Kandil Mountains to Afrin, effectively breaking up what would otherwise be a Kurdish continuum. From there on, an outlet to the Mediterranean, a little over 100 km away, would be the highest aspiration the Kurds could aim for within the framework of finally achieving their longed-for independence.

Should the Turkish army really occupy the strip of land between Kobane and Jarablus, closing the corridor that leads to Afrin, plans to create a continuum between Kurdish majority areas in Iraq and Syria with an outlet to the sea, south of the Turkish border, would inevitably be thwarted.

The United States is not very enthusiastic about the prospect of Turkish military intervention in Syria, well aware that it would thwart the ambitions of the Kurds with whom America has recently cooperated in Kobane, Tel Abyad and in north-west Iraq. Ankara, on the other hand, fears an agreement between Washington and Damascus aimed at putting an end to the caliphate’s adventure and establishing a plan for dividing the Syrian territory, which would envisage the PYD administering the Kurdish-Syrian area leading to a union with Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG).

The Kurds, on the other hand, cannot not take into account current events as their great opportunity for founding an independent state and there are a number of significant elements on their side. They have proved their capability to guarantee stability and security in the regions they govern, both in post-Saddam Iraq and in post-Assad Syria where the president is now reduced to being little more than the mayor of Damascus.

Since the advent of ISIS they have inflicted resounding defeats on the militias, albeit with assistance provided by their American allies’ air raids.

The reasons at the origin of Turkey’s invasion plans clash, however, with the reluctance shown by the army, doubtful when faced with the prospect of setting foot in the Syrian quagmire. At the moment, rather than tanks, Ankara is lacking a strong bond between politics, the armed forces and its diplomacy, sufficient to safeguard the country from the many unknowns such an operation would involve, considering that what is at stake, in addition to those of the United States, are also the interests (and weapons) of Iran and Russia.

All in all, should Turkey really wish to deploy its troops within Syria, it would be running an enormous amount of risks in the name of what is, after all, a political choice.

The election of the Speaker of the Turkish parliament on July 1st, at the end of the fourth session, was characterised by the impossibility of reaching any consensus, with parties backing their own candidates to the very end, and voting that remained almost identical to the outcome of the June 7th general election. The problems encountered in establishing a dialogue in order to reach a political agreement clashes with the 45 days the Turkish constitution allows for forming a government coalition and avoiding new elections.

Erdogan has seen his party loses its absolute majority in parliament for the first time in 13 years. Kurds are now represented in parliament and consequently Erdogan missed his chance to implement his presidential project that would have allowed him to be free of constitutional power and acquire executive power and competences.

At the moment Ankara is caught between two fires and the next three weeks will be decisive. On the one hand there are fears linked to the prospect of the creation of a Kurdish state, while on the other there is the lack of a government capable of assuming responsibility for a choice destined to weigh on the already uncertain outcome of a conflict in what was once called Syria.

Translation by Francesca Simmons