Turkey Poised to Invade Syria
Andrei AKULOV | 15.11.2015 | OPINION

Turkey Poised to Invade Syria

Turkey has made public the plans to deploy some 10,700 military personnel to Syria in mid-December to fight Islamic State, the pro-government Yeni Safak daily reported. According to the newspaper’s report, Turkish forces will advance up to 46 kilometers inside the Syrian territory to create a safe zone for up to 5 million displaced people to solve the refugee crisis hitting Turkey and the EU.   

The plan provides for the establishment of 17 security zones, 11 logistics bases and six refugee camps. The operation will be held in the first two weeks of December. 

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded to the possibility of Turkish ground forces entering Syria to fight the Islamic State with a tentative, but positive, answer. 

«[A] ground forces [campaign] is something which we have to talk [about] together and share. As I told you in our last interview, there’s a need [for] an integrated strategy, including an air campaign and ground troops», he said in his interview to CNN International on November 9.

Ankara is currently preparing an analysis of the current situation in Syria and is going to address the great powers at the G20 summit in Antalya over the weekend, asking for funds to finance the plan. The Prime Minister added the caveat that «Turkey alone cannot take on this burden», but was open to joining a «coalition». «Turkey alone cannot take on this burden. If there’s a coalition and a very well designed integrated strategy, Turkey is ready to take part in all senses», Davutoglu stressed.

Turkish Hurriyet Daily cites an independent Turkish government source echoing Davutoglu’s remarks: that the Turkish government would indeed consider supplementing its airstrikes in Syria with ground troops if necessary, though there is little enthusiasm for involving the Turkish military in a ground war there. 

An indirect confirmation of the news came from the Turkish President who stressed that his party's triumph in the elections of Nov. 1 gives Turkey the chance to take big initiatives to deal with the crisis in the region. According to Erdogan, after the election result, «there is no more political uncertainty in the country».

A landslide victory in the November 1 snap election has paved the way for President Erdogan’s drive to war. Now he has ground to say the landslide victory has provided him with a popular mandate for foreign initiatives while the armed forces concentrate in the areas near the Syrian border for a possible invasion. The President is a strong proponent of «safe zones», an idea that would require US warplanes to patrol the skies over northern Syria with small groups of US troops on the ground. The plan greatly increases the probability of an unexpected clash with Russian warplanes if no security arrangements take place before the operation is launched.  

A comprehensive motion authorizing the government to deploy the Turkish army into Iraq and Syria and to allow the deployment of foreign troops on Turkish soil was approved Oct. 2, 2014 in parliament, providing the necessary legality for Turkey’s potential contribution to the international coalition’s efforts to destroy jihadists.

What drives Turkey to take such a risky action? 

The Turkey’s plan is to create a 20-mile deep ’safe zone’ along a 70-mile stretch of its border with Syria with the aim of preventing a Kurdish state in northern Syria; resisting penetration by Islamic State (IS) subversive groups and blocking the attempts of Syrian government to secure its sovereign borders.

Syrian Kurdish advances against the Islamic State have caused concern in Ankara adamant to prevent creating some sort of Kurdish state or autonomous region along Turkey’s southern border. Turkey is extremely worried about the emerging alliance between the United States and the Syrian Kurds, especially the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Allowing the PYD to unite the Kurdish areas of Syria would represent a threat to Turkey.  By invading Syria, Turkey may change the U.S. policy tipping the balance in its favor. Intervening in Syria could also help Turkey mitigate the worsening refugee problem. 

The country hosts nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. Ankara could transfer some of the displaced persons into a military zone across the border - namely, the 300,000 or so currently residing in Turkish camps, as well as potential future refugees. The intervention would go a long way in repairing Turkey's image in the world as voices are raised louder to accuse Ankara of being complacent against the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Targeting the Islamic State's flank, especially in the Jarabulus-Azaz zone, would greatly benefit the Turkey-friendly rebel forces in Aleppo province, enabling them to divert forces away from fighting the Islamic State to secure Aleppo city.

At that, any Turkish military operation in Syria carries tremendous and varied risks. Turkey might not be able to withstand the financial, diplomatic and military cost, with likely high casualties, of such an operation. The considerations betting against the operation include a reluctant military, lack of public support, and opposition from the Republican People's Party and Peoples' Democratic Party. The idea of military intervention into Syria is not very popular among the grassroots. An operation may backlash to unleash a wave of terrorist acts staged by Islamic State within Turkey. It could also reignite the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s southeast. 

A buffer zone running from Jarabulus to Azaz in Syria is a specific border area is of paramount importance to the Islamic State - its last significant link to foreign recruits and supplies. The group would offer stiff resistance. The Turkish military would have to engage in a fierce fight against an enemy proficient in the use of guerilla strikes and suicide attacks.

The IS would plan mass casualty terrorist attacks inside Turkey itself. So far, the Turkish government has been turning a blind eye on the fact that over time the group developed an underground presence in Turkey, establishing its lines of supplies and recruits coming to Syria. Large-scale terrorist attacks in cities could have a significant destabilizing effect.

The Syrian government could militarily engage the Turkish forces crossing the border through ballistic missile strikes or air raids raising the stakes in an already dangerous conflict and could draw Turkey and potentially its allies deeper into the Syrian civil war. Just hours before the Dovutoglu’s interview with CNN, the news came that the Syrian government forces achieved a big success in the four year-long war seizing the strategic Kweiris air base in eastern Aleppo province (the northern part of the country). Islamic State terrorists were either killed or sent fleeing eastward towards Raqqa. This victory diminishes the chances for Turkish troops to enter Syria unopposed. An attempt to invade the country without coordination of activities with the Syria’s government may result in direct clashes with the pro-Assad troops. The victory will certainly complicate the plans announced by Turkey.   

Jabhat al-Nusra is a powerful extremist group outside Turkish control.  Its reaction is unpredictable. Turkish military may have to face another powerful enemy of the battlefield besides the IS.

At that, international and domestic advantages could be achieved without actually going through with the intervention. At home, it is enough to convince the people that the situation is insecure enough to require strong, one-party rule. Internationally, the very prospect of intervention is sufficient to convince the U.S. to reduce its support of the Kurds, especially the PYD.

Another major issue is that such a campaign would necessitate more coordination between Russian and Turkish forces. Failure here would introduce a potentially unacceptable risk of incidents sparking a fire. For this reason, it would be right to Turkey should talk it over with Russia, Iran and Syria before actually taking any action. This would bring the two coalitions closer to benefit all, except the IS. 

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If Turkey undertakes such an operation, it will have to manage multiple and varied consequences. Ankara cannot undertake a major operation alone without some kind of US support. Russia, Syria, and Iran make up another coalition pursuing the goal of liberating Syria from terror groups. Coordination is a logical step. Unilateral actions presuppose great risks. Supposedly, the Turkish government realizes that a large-scale military operation in Syria becomes an extremely risky adventure unless it is not coordinated with Russia, Iran and Syria. The need to do so is  something the Turkish officials omitted in their statements so far. The upcoming G20 summit is the right place to reach previous agreement of all actors involved before putting the plans into practice. Finally, it should be remembered that an operation in Syria without the consent of Syrian government or the approval by UN Security Council is a gross violation of international law.