Insight: Potential goals of the Turkish intervention in Syria
Recent Development: On October 7, Turkey announced the launch of a much anticipated operation in the northwestern province of Idlib in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that “a landmark operation is underway in Idlib, and this will continue. We will never allow a terror corridor along our Syrian border.” According to the Turkish President, the operation involves Turkish-backed FSA groups, with Turkish forces providing support from within Turkey – as of now, and Russia providing air support. The operation is being framed as an extension of the Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” operation, which led to the capture of a segment of the Turkey-Syria border previously held by ISIS.
During the past weeks, Turkish forces have been amassing along the border with the Idlib Province, which is Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS - an al-Qaeda-tied coalition)’s main stronghold in Syria. This includes tanks, artillery units and special forces. Overnight reports suggested that several Turkish-backed groups crossed the border to Turkey, from their stronghold in the Aleppo Province, and moved to the Reyhanli near Idlib.
Pro-opposition sources claim HTS destroyed a Turkish bulldozer near the border town of Atmah, using an RPG. The Turkish military reportedly responded by carrying out artillery strikes against undisclosed targets in Syria, with Syrian activists claiming several shells impact refugee camps along the border.
Unconfirmed reports suggest the initial force entering Syria is composed of 800 Turkish-backed opposition fighters, which is a much small contingent than what pro-government Turkish newspaper had claimed. Other reports suggest as many as 6000 Turkish/Turkish-backed fighters are to enter Syria in the framework of the intervention.
The Turkish-backed intervention in Syria follows the signing of a memorandum of understanding in May between Turkey, Iran and Russia regarding the implementation of four de-escalation zones in Syria, including in Idlib. Recent negotiations held in Astana, Kazakhstan further opened the way to the intervention by setting up the boundaries of the northern de-escalation zone.
Analysis: Erdogan’s announcement confirms months of speculation regarding a possible Turkish intervention in Syria, while the actual goals of the intervention - beyond vague official statements - have yet to be specified. In Ankara’s eyes, an intervention in northern Syria should have three main goals:
1.Thwarting what Turkey considers to be “Kurdish expansionism” in Syria - as was the case with the Euphrates Shield operation that prevented the Kurds from linking their territories in northern Syria. Erdogan's statement regarding Turkey's resolve not to allow a "terror corridor" along its border with Syria likely refers to the Kurds (the People's Protection Units or YPG being seen as the Syrian branch of the outlawed PKK in Turkey). Russia had thus far acted to prevent clashes between the Kurds and Turkish-backed opposition groups by deploying military police units along the frontline between the rival forces. Whether Moscow would silently support a Turkish operation against the Kurds is unclear at this time, despite significant Turkish efforts to secure Russia's approval.
2. Maintaining/Consolidating Turkish influence in northern Syria, i.e. strengthening groups loyal Ankara or receptive to Ankara’s interests, weakening and sidelining other groups. This “stick and carrot policy” involves Russia: Opposition groups are faced with the choice of either accepting the de facto Turkish area of influence, or being targeted by the Russia air force - as one of the rebel commander recently revealed. This raises the question of whether the Turkish intervention will face resistance for HTS, and to a lesser extent other groups including Ahrar al-Sham - which has adopted a more Turkey-friendly line over the past months as opposed to HTS. The al-Qaeda-tied HTS is rumored to be divided over how to respond to the Turkish intervention, with further rumors of contacts between the group and Ankara ahead of the intervention. On the Turkish side, it is clear that Turkey’s initial plan isn’t to take on HTS - which would require much more resources - but rather force the group to go back “in hiding”. HTS may be prepared to do so, as highlighted by recent efforts to consolidate its influence over civilian bodies in Idlib. HTS’s may assess that the Turkish intervention will lead nowhere and alienate those among the opposition who wish to fight Assad. The group’s recent offensive in Hama, launched weeks before the Turkish intervention and as Ankara’s intentions were relatively clear could have been part of such efforts. Indeed, the Hama offensive, which is still ongoing, made little sense on the military level, yet does show that HTS is - or at least seeks to be seen as - the only “opposition” group still fighting Assad.
3. Laying the groundwork for a broader stabilization of Syria by politically and militarily unifying the rebels. This political layer of the Turkish intervention has been in the works for months, as opposition groups have attempted to unite by either joining more prominent groups (Ahrar al-Sham for instance) or more recently by creating a unified military. These attempts have thus far had limited a impact on the opposition, while leading to a broader divide between Ahrar al-Sham and HTS. The formation of a proto-government/unified rebel command structure is likely seen by Turkey and Russia as a first step toward broader negotiations to solve the Syrian civil war and stabilize Syria.