Turkey’s Military Operation in Northeastern Syria | October 20 Observations
On October 9, 2019, Turkey’s army invaded northeastern Syria. As of now, the Turkish military operation is focused on a 70-km stretch between the city of Kobani (Ein Al-Arab) and East Tel Al-Abyad. This area has a mixed population of Kurds (the majority) and Arabs. The Turkish operation is officially referred to as “Operation Peace Spring” and is presented as an action that is intended “to fight terror.” The Turkish invasion took place shortly after US President Trump announced that the US would not prevent or intervene in a Turkish military invasion of Syria. At the same time the invasion began, the US began evacuating its troops from northern Syria.
Just to clarify – northern Syria is an important area for all players in the region for the following reasons:
Syria’s natural resources – from its breadbasket to the major oil and gas fields – are located in between the Euphrates river and Iraq in northeast Syria. Given the fact that the oil fields are located in this region, so is the pipeline that connects the oil fields in Kurdistan-Iraq (the autonomous region of the Kurds in northern Iraq) with one on Syria’s largest oil refineries which are located in the coastal city of Banias.
The land corridor that stretches from eastern Iran through Iraq must go through northern Syria (where the Kurds are located) to reach the Mediterranean Sea.
What are Turkey’s goals?
One goal of invading northern Syria is to crush the Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria which emerged during the war in Syria (which began in 2011). Turkey argues that the PYD (Partiya Yekita Demokrat) – the Democratic Unionist Party in northern Syria (the primary Syrian Kurdish political entity) is a branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Organization (PKK). For a generation, the PKK has led a violent struggle against Turkey for the independence of the 16 million Kurds who live in Turkey.
This is not the first time the Turks have launched military operations in Syria. Operation “Defender of the Euphrates” (August 2016 – March 2017) and “Operation Olive Branch” (January – March 2018) promised to secure Turkey’s military, economic, and civilian control in northern Syria in the west of the Euphrates River.
On the military level – Turkey is arming and financing two military subcontractors in northern Syria. One is a Syrian rebel organization – the “Syrian National Army” (SNA) which is controlled by the Defense Office of the provisional Syrian Rebel government in northern Syria. The second military entity Turkey supports is an alliance of Sunni militant Islamist organizations, led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – the “Al-Sham Liberation Authority”) – formerly the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
On the economic and civilian level – the Turkish Governor of the Turkish border in Syria is responsible for the border crossings between Turkey and Syria. Turkey supplies Syrians in north Syria administrative and governmental services such as mail, transport, licensing and more. Schools in northwest Syria are under Turkish control and they instituted mandatory learning of the Turkish language. Branches of government ministries in Syria work under the flag of Turkey. The economic and commercial activity takes place mainly in Turkish currency and is expedited by the Turkish banking system.
Turkey’s second goal is to gain control of Syria’s oil and gas reserves, most of which are located in northeastern Syria. Control over the gas would give Turkey a significant bargaining chip in the division of influence between Syria, Iran, and Russia.
A third goal is to restore of Erdogan’s status and political power, which has been damaged due to the deepening economic crisis in Turkey. Turkish public opinion currently broadly supports the invasion (with the exception of the Kurds in Turkey). And Erdogan hopes patriotic sentiment will unite the Turks around his leadership. Erdogan also hopes to leverage the campaign to promote his image as the leading Sunni leader in the Middle East. For this purpose, Erdogan cloaks the Turkish invasion of Syria in Islam and the Turkish army as Muhammad.
The Stance of regional players vis a vis the Turkish invasion of Syria:
The Arab League held an emergency meeting for Foreign Ministers and issued a statement condemning the Turkish invasion of Syria and urging it to withdraw immediately. This meeting has several interesting aspects:
First, the conference was held at Egypt’s urgent request. The rush is in sharp contradiction to the almost absolute Egyptian silence throughout the war in Syria. Egypt’s activism is not because Egypt is so anxious about the fate of the Kurds or Arabs in northeastern Syria, but because it is an opportunity for Egypt to attack Turkey as part of their fierce ongoing rivalry.
Second, the Foreign ministers of Qatar and Somalia refrained from supporting the concluding statement of the meeting. Both countries – and especially Qatar – have close relations with Turkey – hence their position vis a vis the concluding statement.
Third, the Iraqi and Lebanese Foreign Ministers took advantage of the meeting to call for the renewal of Syria’s membership in the Arab League which was frozen because of the massacre of the Syrian people carried out by the Assad regime and its partners – Iran and Russia. The requests made by Lebanon and Iraq are not coincidental – they reflect the Iranian interests and illustrate the extent of Iran’s influence in dictating Iraq and Lebanon’s regional policies.
Iran expresses a dichotomous position with respect to the Turkish invasion. On the one hand, official Iranian spokesmen expressed “understanding of Turkey’s security concerns.” But in the same breath, called on Turkey to immediately withdraw from Syria.
The Iranian dichotomy expresses the complexity of the situation for Iran:
On the one hand, Iran does not want to directly and blatantly attack Turkey, which supports Iran’s positions in the face of US sanctions, and offers Iran support on the diplomatic front. On the other hand, Turkish control of northern Syria harms Iran’s interests for several reasons:
Iran’s goal is to put its hands on the revenue from the oil fields in northeast Syria. If this area is under Turkish control, Iran will not be able to achieve that goal.
Turkish control in northern Syria will be based mainly upon Sunni-Syrian military forces. Such forces – under a Turkish military umbrella – could turn against the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Syria who are in Syria serving Iran.
Iran maintains complex relations – generally good relations, with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. An exception to this is the Kurdish underground in Iran which attacks Iranian targets in northwestern Iran. A growing Kurdish death toll in northern Syria as a result of the Turkish invasion could trigger a chain of Kurdish protests that could, among other things, lead to intensifying attacks by the Kurdish underground in Iran
Syria – the Assad regime strongly condemned the Turkish invasion. On a practical level, an agreement was signed between the Kurdish forces and the Assad regime, according to which Assad’s military forces will protect the Kurds. At this time, there are reports that Assad’s forces are being deployed in the city of Manjab, which lies several tens of kilometers south of the zone of the Turkish invasion zone, (a 70-km stretch between the city of Kobani (Ein Al-Arab) and East Tel Al-Abyad). According to unconfirmed reports, Syrian regime forces are expected to head north to the city of Kobani (Ein Al-Arab) reportedly evacuated by Kurdish forces.
Israel has officially condemned the Turkish invasion and declared that it will provide humanitarian aid to the Kurds.
The Israeli stance is due to two key factors:
First, it is an opportunity to attack Erdoğan who is very hostile to Israel. The fact that the major European countries were quick to condemn the Turkish invasion, and even to take initial steps – such as a Turkish ceasefire – also contributes to the Israeli position. This is one of the few points of agreement (and there are not many points of agreement) between Israel and main European countries regarding regional policy.
Second, there is a long-standing relationship between Israel and the Kurds due to many common denominators including Both Israeli Jews and the Kurds share a sense of communal destiny; both are a national minority with national aspirations living in a hostile space; both adopt democratic basic values such as gender equality, diverse political representation, etc.
Observations as of October 19th:
On October 17th the US and Turkey announced a 120-hour cease-fire to begin immediately. Turkey made it clear that the purpose of the cease-fire was to enable Kurdish armed forces to withdraw from their strongholds near the Turkish border.
In my analysis, the three current benefactors of the situation in northern Syria are Assad, Turkey, and Russia.
Entering the city of Manjab following the agreement with the Kurds serves the Assad regime because it places his forces in the area east of Idlib in northwestern Syria – which is the last stronghold of Syrian rebels (who are supported by Turkey).
The agreement with the Kurds will very likely lead to the expansion of the Assad regime’s control in the area of northeastern Syria, and at the same time will renew the regime’s control over the oil and gas fields.
Erdogan has positioned himself as a powerful regional leader who successfully challenges global powers.
Turkey can now feel confident that any arrangement in northern Syria will meet Turkey’s interest – and that is to end the Kurdish autonomy of Kurdistan in northern Syria (that has been in existence since 2013).
The withdrawal of the United States enables the Russia-Assad axis to expand their control into northern Syria.
Putin can develop an alliance with the Kurds in northern Syria, who will ask for Russia’s assistance now that the United States has abandoned them.
Putin is now the only factor powerful enough to broker a deal between Assad and Turkey regarding the control of northern Syria. And that role further strengthens Putin’s influence.
Turkey’s invading Syria strengthens Putin because it provides him with yet another leverage in the silent – yet significant power struggle between Russia and Iran competing over Syria.
While in the short term, Iran benefits from the US withdrawal because the US has made another step in exiting the region, the new reality on the ground could present serious challenges for Iran down the road.
Iran’s single largest investment in the Middle East has been Syria. Syria is the lynchpin of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and for decades was the “beating heart” of the Axis of Resistance – a powerful web of allies and proxies developed and sponsored by the Iranians (whose major members are: The Assad regime in Syria; Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Palestinian terror organizations in the Gaza Strip including, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees) to help Iran in its aspiration to become the dominant superpower. Iran began its involvement in the war in Syria in 2011 when it sent militias to save Assad and ensure Iran’s control over Syria. And Iran wants to “collect” on its investments by gaining contracts to rebuild Syria, control Syria’s oil and gas, and to ensure the Iranian corridor to the Mediterranean. Currently, Iran’s biggest competitors for the spoils and for influence and control of Syria are Russia and Turkey. And as I explained above – they are the winners at Iran’s expense.
Assad regaining control of northern Syria and aligning with Turkey to ensure Erdogan’s interests and influence in northern Syria presents a challenge to Iran’s control – direct and indirect – in Syria. Why? One should remember that Iran argues that it is in Syria because Assad invited them to help him “fight terror.” Assad’s alliance with Iran has made Assad “persona non-grata” in the Arab world; Syria’s membership in the Arab League has been suspended since 2011. For a multitude of reasons, Assad would like to regain his legitimacy and be forgiven by the Arab world. Under the slogan of “protecting the integrity of Syrian territory and sovereignty” and backed by Russia – who will be happy to limit Iran’s gains in Syria – Assad could ask Iran to leave. With the ever-evolving and escalating Arab-Iranian power struggle, this could gain Assad a lot of points in the Arab world.
For free, the US gave away a valuable card it could have used to secure US interests in Syria – and in the region. Maintaining and nurturing its alliance with the Kurds could have provided US a powerful, organized and established ally in Syria, based on the strategic corridor connecting Iraq and the Mediterranean Sea, in the heart of Syria’s oil and gas fields. The US could have used that alliance as leverage to ensure US interests – for example, limiting Iranian and Russian influence in Syria. The United States gave its rivals – Turkey, Assad, and Russia what they most wanted. With nothing in exchange.
The Islamic State (ISIS) will take advantage of the turbulence caused by the US withdrawal from northern Syria and the invasion of Turkey to recover and renew its hold in eastern Syria and maybe West Iraq as well. The US that has invested a great deal in creating a military alliance that succeeded after a concerted and continuing military effort to uproot ISIS’s strongholds in eastern Syria may find itself forced to renew its fighting against ISIS.
The withdrawal from Syria is viewed by US allies as reckless. And this impression deepens the notion that the US is not an ally that can be trusted, and further erodes the United States’ regional and global influence and power. Therefore, US allies will strengthen their additional alliances with US rivals such as Russia and China, to ensure their interests.
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