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The stake of Turkey’s operations in Syria: what Erdoğan has to gain and Putin’s agenda

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hand with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, 05 August 2022.
©EPA-EFE/VYACHESLAV PROKOFYEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL  |   Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hand with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia, 05 August 2022.

Turkey has bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria in response to the bomb attack in Istanbul, warning this is just the beginning. A wider operation in Syria would help the Erdoğan regime draw attention away from the country’s economic troubles. Besides, it might also be a first step towards solving the refugee crisis. Russia, a country involved in the Syrian conflict, could turn a blind eye to Ankara’s moves because it is interested in exporting natural gas via pipelines transiting Turkey.

Turkey bombs Kurdish positions and threatens with a land invasion

On November 20, the Turkish air forces bombed positions held by PKK and their Syrian allies, YPG, in northwestern Syria. During the same operation, Turkey also targeted positions held by PKK in northern Iraq. According to official statements, some 70 aircraft and drones were involved in this vast operation that destroyed 89 targets. The attack follows the November 13 bomb attack in Istiklal Cadessi, a busy district in central Istanbul. The blast killed 6 people and wounded another 80, some of whom are still clinging to life in hospitals. While leaders in Ankara, including president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu were quick to lay the blame on PKK and YPG as the perpetrators of the attack, the two have publicly denied responsibility. PKK insisted that the organization will not directly target civilians, but Turkish security forces.

A tweet posted by the Turkish Defense Minister clearly suggests that the bombings in norther Iraq and Syria come in retaliation to the terrorist attack of November 13. In another tweet, the Turkish official was even more explicit, saying that the bomb attacks are meant to destroy terrorist nests. The Syrian Observer for Human Rights, a British information service, says that over 30 people were killed on Syria’s territory. The events may escalate tensions between the two countries with potentially devastating consequences of a much wider scope than some pundits might expect.

On November 20, a missile strike and/or mortar attack launched from Tel Rifat in Syria wounded eight Turkish servicemen stationed a special ops center set up by the Turkish police on the Kilis Öncüpınar border checkpoint. On November 21, five mortar and missile shells launched from Syrian territory killed at least three people, including a child, in Turkey’s Gaziantep province. No organization has officially claimed the two attacks. Turkey’s Interior Minister Solylu has attributed the attacks to the PKK and YPG. Kurdistan’s People’s Defense Units (YPG) makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS). The militia has been involved in the Syrian conflict from the very beginning, fighting against the Islamic State, against the Damascus regime and for Kurdish autonomy.

A very important detail in this context is that the Turkish air forces carried out the operation in northeastern Syria and in northern Iraq considering that the airspace of these regions is controlled by Russia and the USA, respectively. Washington, Moscow and Damascus have yet released no official statements concerning these specific Turkish operations other than the usual calls for restraint and the observance of sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is clear Turkey got the go-ahead, albeit temporary and exceptionally, from the Russians and the Americans, and this might come as an encouragement for future operations. In recent months, Ankara has been persistent about its determination to expand the current security zone in northern Syria and Iraq from 15 to 30 kilometers. Despite warnings issued by Washington as well as Moscow regarding the serious consequences entailed by a military operation seeking to achieve this goal, Erdoğan’s Turkey seems willing to use any terrorist attack, such as last week’s bomb attack in Istanbul, as an opportunity to legitimize a new ground offensive in northeastern Syria.

An operation in Syria would provide Erdoğan with an external enemy and a solution to the refugee crisis

The enemy in question is Syria, because the Russians are more likely to sanction a Turkish operation here than the Americans would be in northern Iraq. Ankara has proved on repeated occasions in recent years it no longer holds its alliance with Washington in high regard. Turkey’s exclusion from the F35 program, the country’s reliance on Russia’s support to build the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, Turkey’s refusal to sanction Russia for its war in Ukraine and the safe harbor Ankara has provided to Russian businessmen and their investment projects are but a few elements that shape the image of a country that is moving farther and farther away from the West and ever closer to Vladimir Putin’s regime. In a new confirmation of Turkey’s aggressive tone towards Washington, Minister Soylu’s recent speech was highly aggressive and critical of the United States. When the US Embassy in Ankara presented its condolences after the November 13 attack, Soylu said Turkey rejects the condolence, also accusing the Americans of having actually encouraged the terrorist attack by providing intelligence to YPG-FSD, Washington’s key allies in the coalition fighting the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, tensions continue to escalate in northwestern Syria. On November 21, the Turkish army continued to shell areas controlled by the Kurdish forces where the mortar and/or missile attacks originated, particularly the areas of Aleppo, Manbij and Kobanî. The previous day, on November 20, the Turkish president threatened he would soon launch a large-scale operation in Syria and Iraq that would go far beyond airstrikes. In a statement made upon returning from Qatar, where he attended the opening of the World Cup,  Erdoğan pointed out: “There are terrorist organizations in the south that are planning and executing attacks (against Turkey). They are present both in Iraq as well as Syria (…) Turkey’s military operations will not be limited to airstrikes”.

If Ankara eventually decides to launch a far-reaching military operation in northern Syria, both on land and in the air, it would formally seek to ensure an extended security zone of 30 kilometers on the territory of a sovereign neighboring state, an area under the control of the Turkish military. But the real purpose is not only removing the threat of Kurdish terrorism. Turkish authorities are expected to relocate to this security zone part of the 4 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. Despite the millions of Euro the European Union has funneled into keeping the situation in check, the cost of sheltering these people creates a significant burden for Ankara, which is further aggravated by tensions generated at the level of Turkish society by the presence of these refugees. The Turkish economy is facing a profound crisis while living standards continue to drop, which makes the refugee crisis a serious problem for Erdoğan. The Turkish administration risks losing the parliamentary and presidential elections this year against this highly sensitive backdrop. Although the opposition has so far taken its time to organize a campaign to oust the current government, this prospect is still in the cards. Therefore, an operation against the Kurds would also fuel nationalist fever, a central pillar of the current administration and a defining element of Turkish politics.

What Putin has to gain if he turns a blind eye to Turkey’s operation in Syria: Turkish routes for Russian gas

At international level, a Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria would come with several implications. The use of airstrikes in an airspace controlled by the Russians would be a clear sign of Moscow’s approval in this field. It’s no secret to any knowledgeable analyst that supporting Erdoğan, including in next year’s elections, is as important a regional objective for Vladimir Putin as supporting Bashar al-Assad. Apart from supplying S-400 missile systems as well as capital and technology to help build the Akkuyu NPP, Moscow has also recently offered to provide assistance for building a natural gas hub in northwestern Turkey, an offer that was well received in Ankara. Such a hub is expected to receive gas nu just from Russia, but from other sources as well, such as the Caspian Sea or Iran. The impact of this project on the evolution of regional and global natural gas markets will depend on transport capacities, supply sources as well as the policies of the number one sponsor behind this project, namely Russia.

In other words, Moscow appears eager to replace its northern export routes with whatever Turkey provides as well as access to a huge storage area where alternative sources to Russian gas might be mixed with Russia’s own exports. The result would be a decrease in the EU’s ability of sanctioning Russia’s acts of aggression by significantly cutting back on natural gas imports from this country, all with Turkey’s contribution. Moscow greenlighting a large-scale Turkish operation in northern Syria would therefore spell major benefits both for Turkey as well as Russia, and potentially high costs for Europe and the West as a whole.

Tags: Turkey , Russia , Vladimir Putin , Syria , Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
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