Syria is currently party to a series of non-international and international armed conflicts. Since 2011, Syria has engaged in a series of non-international armed conflicts on its territory against a wide array of rebel groups, including the Islamic State group, the Free Syrian Army, and the Kurdish militia.
Since September 2014, Syria has also been involved in an international armed conflict with an international coalition led by the United States. The coalition includes the United States, Australia, Belgium, Germany, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. They have been targeting the Islamic State group on Syrian territory. Israel has launched missiles and airstrikes inside Syria, including attacks on Syrian military bases and air defense systems.
Russia is a party to the armed conflicts in Syria. Russian military intervention is in support of the Syrian government with the latter’s consent. Russia provides training, equipment, and weapons to Syria. Since September 2015, Russia has initiated airstrikes against rebel groups. Iran also sent military advisors to train and assist Syrian government forces.
Since July 2015, Turkey has also been involved in an international armed conflict with Syria after launching its first airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Syria. Turkey long-sought Western help in creating “safe zones” in northern Syria; it never received the military help it sought, and Western offers were generally limited to integration support within Turkey and humanitarian actions in Syria. Ankara eventually acted unilaterally on the military front. In recent years, Turkey’s Syria policies have not only been humanitarian but also too hard power-based. In the course of the crisis, military interventions have become the dominant approach in Ankara.
Turkey deployed ground troops after four military operations at different times. Such a change in foreign policy has increased the role of Turkey in the region, and Ankara has become a decisive factor in the future of Syria. Turkey is not likely to leave in the foreseeable future. However, these military interventions by Turkey brought different risks and costs, as well as political and military successes. Considering the recent achievements of the Syrian regime, supported by Russia, it is still unclear whether Turkey will be able to sustain the gains it has made in Syria.
The Turkish Interventions in Northern Syria
1. Operation Euphrates Shield
On August 24, 2016, Turkey declared that it was exercising its rights of self-defense codified under UN Charter Article 51 and launched Operation Euphrates Shield. The National Security Council stated that the operation’s objectives were to maintain border security and confront Daesh terrorism within the framework of the UN charter; it also emphasized that the PKK terrorist organization, as well as its affiliates, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat-PYD), will not be allowed to establish a corridor of terror on Turkey’s doorstep.
The Turkish Armed Forces quickly took possession of the town of Jarabulus on the Euphrates River, and then moved westward to secure the strip of land up to the border of Afrin Canton. To the south, Turkish troops advanced 19 miles into Syria to take control of the town of Al-Bab in February 2017. Clearing these areas has been very important for Turkey’s defense in preventing Daesh’s rocket attacks. The military achievements have been a critical maneuver in hindering the efforts of the PKK terrorist organization and its PYD affiliates aimed at linking the eastern territories under their de facto control with Afrin in the west.
2. Operation Olive Branch
On January 20, 2018, Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch into Afrin, northwestern Syria. The main objective of the operation was to repel the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel-YPG), from Turkey’s immediate doorstep. After clearing the rural areas north of Afrin of any presence of the YPG Kurdish militia, the Turkish Armed Forces took Afrin in March 2018.
Turkey’s main goal has been to check the YPG’s westward expansion, and Turkey has amassed troops and armored vehicles between Idlib and Afrin. That operation cleared the Turkish border and nearly 2,000 square kilometers of the extremist IS but also aimed to prevent the YPG from linking the Afrin and Kobani cantons.
3. Operation Peace Spring
Armed and supported by the US, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have played a central role in north-eastern Syria, where the Kurdish leadership established a semi-autonomous governed enclave under the leadership of the PYD. Turkey has long warned it would not allow a “terror corridor” on its border with Syria. On October 9, 2019, the Turkish Armed Forces launched a ground and air assault against the SDF in north-eastern Syria. On October 10, Turkey officially initiated an offensive military campaign, Operation Peace Spring, with the declared objective of creating a safe zone in the Kurdish-held territories along its southern border.
The Turkish forces and the Syrian National Army, a coalition of armed opposition groups, swiftly moved into Syrian territory and pushed Kurdish forces away from the border. The operation ended ten days later when Turkey reached separate ceasefire agreements with the US and Russia. The SDF pulled its forces 30 km back from a 120km long strip along the Turkey-Syria border, the planned Turkey-controlled “safe zone” area between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. The SDF reached a landmark agreement with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. The Syrian government forces moved along the provisional frontline and to key cities such as Raqqa, Manbij, and Kobane.
4. Operation Spring Shield
According to the September 2018 agreement with Russia, which banned offensive actions in Idlib, Turkish military forces were working to protect local civilians. Syrian forces have increased their attacks on Idlib since May 2019 under the pretext of combating terrorism. The Assad regime managed to make progress in the south of Idlib in January and February 2020 with Russian air support. Operation Spring Shield was launched after at least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike by Assad regime forces in Idlib, a de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria, on March 1, 2020. The operation ended within a week when Erdoğan flew to Moscow to sign one of many agreements to guarantee a ceasefire in Idlib.
The new ceasefire meant that the Syrian Army would not continue its offensive against the Turkish-backed militants, potentially pushing them away to Turkish territory as well, meaning Ankara would not need to intervene. Damascus, which was not part of the talks in Moscow, still had its interests preserved. The Syrian Army retained control over the territories it seized during the latest offensive, including the strategic M5 highway connecting the Syrian capital to the nation’s second-most populous city of Aleppo. The latest situation has caused the Syrian regime to gain a strategic advantage in the region.
Will Turkey’s Syria policy bring success or failure?
Turkey has launched multiple military operations in Syria. These have laid the groundwork for a more aggressive, nationalist foreign policy with profound implications for relations with the United States, Russia, and the EU. Turkey’s military operations in Syria have resulted in increasingly tense relations with the United States. Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurds has alienated Ankara to the extent that U.S. policymakers failed to anticipate. Ankara must internationalize the security of these areas or face ongoing instability and potential conflict with the Syrian regime, Kurdish insurgents, Russia, and the US.
For years, Turkey has claimed that the creation of a buffer zone by an international humanitarian mission would both offer Syrians the opportunity to live a decent life in their own country and bring an end to most of the tensions and conflicts in the country. Finally, Turkey has declared multiple safe zones within Syria’s borders after the four interventions. The safe zones comprise areas (Tel Abyad, Jarablus, and Afrin) under direct Turkish rule and Idlib, which is under Turkey’s military protection but ruled by an autonomous administration. The Turkish plan is designed in part to house Syrian refugees in a secure area along its border with Syria, as well as to keep it free from Kurdish fighters it regards as terrorists.
Ankara has sought to weaken Syrian Kurdish actors and change the demographic balance of northern Syria and Turkish interventions have caused additional displacement in some places. This is a dilemma of Turkey’s Syria policy: Ankara absolutely rejects any form of autonomy in the SDF as a derogation of Syria’s territorial integrity; yet, through its military operations, it has itself essentially ended Syrian sovereignty and carved out semi-autonomous zones.
Another main problem for Turkey is in administering Afrin, the only historically Kurdish enclave within the safe zone. Economic and humanitarian conditions in Afrin remain poor, despite Turkey’s efforts. Turkey appears committed to protecting the area, and this strategic assurance will likely lead to an ongoing trickle of resettlement of Syrians displaced from other areas. The combination of growing ethnic tension and terrorist attacks means that Afrin remains unstable. Most of the refugees who have moved to Afrin over the last years are Sunni Arabs from parts of Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. The discontent of local Kurds, and friction between them and Arabs who have been displaced from other parts of Syria, is a long-term problem for Turkey.
Idlib has been one of the strongholds of the Syrian rebels and, more recently, a region filled with extremist groups. The region, which originally counted a population of less than a million, now has three million residents. Turkey’s military intervention in Idlib was motivated by Ankara’s desire to draw a line against further regime advances that might jeopardize Turkish territorial gains across northern Syria. Turkey also got what it wanted: a northern Idlib buffer zone, where it can deal with internally displaced people and refugees to make sure they’re not crossing into its territory.
Almost three million Idlib residents piled up in the north of the region, seeking to cross the Turkish border. Terrorist groups, including an Al-Qaeda offshoot known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former Al Nusra Front, remain the region’s most serious threat. Ankara has shown no willingness to give up control over these groups just yet. The most difficult aspect of this situation is how exactly Turkey and Russia will deal with terrorists who are based in Idlib.
The Turkish government’s policies on Syria have come to significantly jeopardize the safety of Turkish soldiers. Damascus plans to eventually regain control over all Syrian territories. The overall risk is increasing for the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib. At least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in Syrian regime airstrikes in Idlib, and several more were badly injured in a huge regime attack in 2020. In September 2021, Turkey was rattled that five generals serving on Syria-related missions were seeking to resign, including the head of a command center in charge of all Turkish operations in Syria and two others at the helm of commando forces that are deployed in Syria. Retirement requests by generals can be explained as an indication of disapproval of government policies.
Turkish Defense Ministry sources refuted media reports that five generals requested retirement, saying that the demands of the two generals who requested retirement for health and family reasons were accepted, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. It was quite remarkable that two senior commanders of the Turkish Land Forces Command demanded early retirement right after the heavy losses of the Turkish soldiers. The resignation of the generals can be considered more likely due to the increasingly dangerous conditions and casualties in Idlib.
Turkey’s challenges there include a difficult balancing act with the US and Russia, huge financial costs of military operations and civilian aid, the presence of radical Islamist groups, and the possibility of the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed PKK, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
Turkey’s establishment of a dependent area in Syria has come at a significant economic cost. Turkey is also facilitating international humanitarian aid and providing stabilization assistance to the area it controls. In addition to paying the salaries of personnel in the safe zone, Turkey has incurred costs for maintaining the area through the defense budget. Ankara’s expenses also include those for humanitarian operations; infrastructure projects; income subsidies; energy and defense initiatives; and the salaries of civilian employees and the groups that make up the Syrian National Army. In normal circumstances, maintaining a safe zone at a cost of $2 billion-$3 billion is sustainable for an economy the size of Turkey’s. However, the economic crisis in Turkey in recent years may cause the costs of these operations to reach unbearable levels.
The long-term risks inherent in Turkey’s efforts to create refugee resettlement zones by force—massive demographic change, radicalization, and long-term instability—are of profound interest to both Turkey and Europe and of serious interest to the US. While the Turkish government claims that the safe zone will eventually host up to two million former refugees, the problem for Ankara is that Syrians in Turkey do not appear to be moving to the safe zone in large numbers.
Ankara faces several dilemmas that will not only determine the viability of its Syrian project but also have a significant impact on its relations with actors such as Russia, the US, and Europe. Turkey has already established a Sunni Arab-majority zone in Syria. This would allow Turkey to change the population composition of important Kurdish-populated areas and prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish territory on Turkey’s southern border. Due to the broad tension between the SDF and Turkey, the unresolved nature of the Kurdish issue has also been one of the biggest sources of instability in northern Syria.
There is a fundamental uncertainty about Turkey’s long-term agenda in maintaining control of a Sunni Arab-majority zone in north-eastern Syria. Turkey wants to preserve the Arab-majority autonomous regions in the northeast, but it also defines Kurdish autonomy in Syria as a source of instability. It remains unclear whether Turkey will stay in this area for the long haul. If Turkey has to eventually hand the area over to the Syrian regime, it will lose the benefits of Turkish investment in the safe zone.