Piously titled “Operation Peace Spring,” Turkey’s assault on northeast Syria, which began on Wednesday, is aimed at clearing the border area of the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey describes as “terrorists,” and creating a “safe zone” for the resettlement of about 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
This is Turkey’s third military incursion into Syria since 2016, the earlier two have given it control over 3,500 square kilometers of territory in the north of the country. The latest attack has been condemned in Middle East and European capitals, while the Red Cross has warned of a humanitarian disaster. US President Donald Trump has called it a “bad idea.”
Ironically, the ground for this attack was prepared three days earlier in Washington, when the White House issued a statement saying that, following a telephone call between the US and Turkish presidents, Turkey would soon be moving into northern Syria and that US armed forces “will not support or be involved in the operation.”
Trump then tweeted about the “endless and ridiculous wars” inherited from the Barack Obama era, and said it was time to “bring our soldiers home.” He added that it was up to Turkey, Russia, the Kurds and Europe “to figure the situation out.” Trump said he had consulted widely at home and abroad and that most parties were “thrilled by the decision.” There are doubts about the veracity of both of these assertions.
This appears to be a unilateral Trumpian initiative, with no consultations with the State Department, the Pentagon or allies. Indeed, “thrill” was a feeling clearly missing from responses to the president’s remarks. Sen. Lindsey Graham described the plan as “impulsive,” “shortsighted” and “irresponsible.” The US’ Kurdish allies in the SDF described northeast Syria as a “mechanism of death,” while Middle East allies spoke of betrayal.
In an attempt at damage control, Trump warned he would “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey” if it were to do anything that he, in his “great and unmatched wisdom, (would) consider to be off limits.” But, a day later, he announced that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be his guest on Nov. 13.
The implications of this latest Turkish attack are not clear. It could be a limited operation to shape the proposed safe zone, which stretches about 350 kilometers along the border and up to 35 kilometers into Syrian territory. However, the SDF could view this as an existential threat. Having fought ISIS forces successfully and taken 11,000 casualties, they could decide to give the Turks a hard fight.
The Kurds enjoy considerable support in the US and in European capitals, where the Turkish military action will be closely scrutinized for possible war crimes. More immediately, the Pentagon, having worked hard to organize the SDF to fight ISIS, will resist Turkey’s plans to decimate the force and occupy the region, even if it is presented as a fight against ISIS.
Then there is the problem of how to handle the near-70,000 ISIS militants who are presently in SDF custody. A conflict could lead to many of them getting free and re-emerging as the formidable and cruel fighting force they once were. US officials say they will move into Turkish custody, though no discussions have been held with the SDF. Trump has confirmed that two prominent ISIS militants, linked with the beheadings of foreigners, are now in US custody.
There are grave doubts about the viability of Erdogan’s plan to relocate 2 million refugees to newly built villages and towns in northeast Syria. This is likely to cost more than $26 billion and has not evoked much enthusiasm in Europe, where the latest Turkish incursion has been sharply criticized. A US official has described this idea as “crazy.”
Most importantly, Turkey’s partners in the Astana peace process — Russia and Iran — have serious reservations about Ankara’s military plans. For Russia, the priority now is the recently set up constitutional committee for Syria; it would not like to see this committee’s deliberations jeopardized by a war initiated by Turkey. Russia and Iran are also committed to Syria’s territorial integrity and will not countenance Turkey’s occupation of a large part of the country.
The US clearing the way for the Turkish attack appears to be a last-ditch effort to wean Turkey away from the Russian embrace and get it back as a full-time NATO member. This is delusional, given Erdogan’s single-mindedness in matters relating to the Kurds and in asserting Turkey’s premier status in regional matters.
The outlook for Syria is unclear, since Turkey’s ambitions are likely to clash with those of its allies, while some Kurds might even see advantage in working with the Assad government, as is being promoted by Iran and Russia.
As the 2020 presidential election looms, Trump is not going to give up his interest in getting US troops home. This is creating power vacuums that could aggravate regional tensions and even lead to ill-considered military activity.
The Middle East can be expected to remain on the cusp of uncertainty and suffused with a sense of imminent crisis, which has been its hallmark for some years now.