Less than a week after Turkish troops and their Syrian allies moved into northern Syria, much of what pundits predicted would happen has already come true.
More than 130,000 Syrians have been displaced so far as a result of the invasion, while Syrian militias, fighting under the banner of the Syrian Free Army, have reportedly carried out extrajudicial executions of Kurds, including a key political leader. Hundreds of captured ISIS affiliates also escaped after most US Special Forces were ordered to leave the region.
The Turkish operation, aimed at creating a 400-kilometer-long, 32-kilometer-deep safe zone inside Syrian territory, was effectively sanctioned by US President Donald Trump following a telephone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week. Trump’s move shocked Syrian Kurdish allies as well as Pentagon officials and congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. He again spoke to Erdogan on Monday to demand an immediate cease-fire, while also approving sanctions against Ankara.
Turkey’s goals are clear: To crush the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and drive them deep into the desert. But Erdogan’s gambit is likely to backfire. Here is a view of how developments may unfold in the coming days and weeks.
Feeling betrayed by the Americans, the Kurdish autonomous administration in northeastern Syria has already moved quickly to reconcile with the Syrian government, announcing on Monday that it would allow regime forces to enter its territory to confront the Turkish invasion. SDF fighters will now fight with the regime and hopefully benefit from Russian air cover. There were reports that regime forces had managed to deploy near Ain Issa, a strategic town that Turkey was trying to reach. Interestingly, Ain Issa is located about 45 kilometers south of the border, well beyond the 32-kilometer target set by Erdogan.
Turkey had warned Damascus against deploying its troops in Kurdish-controlled areas and the question now is how will Ankara justify clashing with Russian and Iranian-backed government forces and how will Moscow and Tehran react to such a possibility?
Aside from global condemnation of the Turkish operation, the move is risky for Erdogan for a number of reasons. The Turkish president exaggerated the Kurdish threat to his country and his determination to invade northern Syria had more to do with his personal ambitions than with Turkey’s national security. Even if his troops manage to control vast swaths of Syrian territory, securing it will prove to be a major and costly challenge.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial response to the Turkish invasion was tactical. Moscow must have been relieved to see US forces withdrawing from northern Syria, but giving Turkey a free pass into that territory is another matter. The loose alliance between Ankara and Moscow will be tested in the coming days. As Syrian government forces try to take over the Kurdish territory, Moscow will have to decide whether to back Damascus or allow the Turkish army to fill the void left by the Americans.
Initially, the Damascus government refused to talk to the Kurdish administration, accusing it of being a US puppet. But allowing Turkey to occupy northern Syria and perhaps stay there permanently is something else. Its decision to deploy forces in Kurdish-held areas could not have taken place without Moscow’s consent. In the eyes of the world, the Syrian government is defending its sovereignty and territory against a foreign invasion. Erdogan’s justification for fighting regime forces will be compromised as Iran and Russia, not to mention the rest of the world, move to condemn the Turkish operation.
Not since the eruption of the crisis in 2011 have Arab countries — Qatar and Libya excluded — displayed unity over Syria. An Arab League statement on Saturday condemned the “Turkish aggression” and defended Syria’s territorial integrity, but words are not enough to dissuade Erdogan from carrying out a scheme that will most likely include ethnic cleansing by replacing displaced local inhabitants with Syrian refugees. He did exactly that in Afrin and Jarablus when his troops took over those areas.
Arab countries must do more to confront Erdogan’s plans in northern Syria, especially as Syrian government forces move to extend their grip over Kurdish-administered areas. The time has come to engage Damascus diplomatically and support the political process to end the Syrian civil war.
As expected, hundreds of people affiliated with ISIS have escaped from Kurdish detention centers in the wake of the Turkish operation and the quick US withdrawal, and they will likely try to regroup and revive the terrorist organization’s gruesome agenda. That is bad news for the region and the rest of the world. Turkey’s role in enabling foreign extremists to enter Syria in the past is questionable at best.
Trump’s justification for the US withdrawal from Syria as fulfilling his pledge to quit the region’s “endless and ridiculous wars” is a major geopolitical event that comes at a time when American influence in the region is waning. Regional allies should be worried and the question is what ramifications Trump’s decision will have on the region as a whole. The US pullout is good news for Iran and Russia — two countries that seek to enhance their presence and influence in the region.
The confusing and contradictory stand by President Trump over the Turkish invasion should worry Erdogan. As economic sanctions kick in, Turkey’s economy will suffer and a prolonged military operation in Syria will come at a hefty cost both politically and economically for the defiant Turkish president.