What does Erdogan expect from the operation in Syria?

MOSCOW, 30 Oct 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

Turkey has begun preparations for a new military operation against Kurdish groups in northern Syria. Resolutions providing for the extension of the authorities’ powers to send troops to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have been submitted to the Turkish Grand National Assembly for a vote.

The document signed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan provides for the extension of the mandate for the presence of the Turkish military in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria for another two years starting from October 30, 2021. The resolution states that in the regions close to the southern land borders of Turkey, “a conflict situation persists”, and that “risks and threats continue to increase”.

The document also stated that “measures have been taken in accordance with the legitimate interests of national security to preserve the calm and stability established in the areas where Turkey previously conducted military operations,” while “risks and threats aimed at activities related to the creation of stability and security within the framework of the Astana process continue.

Within the framework of all these events, it is vital to take the necessary measures for national security in accordance with our rights under international law against all kinds of risks and actions that endanger our national security, seeking to destroy the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, and with the help of terrorism to create illegal entities there”.

Returning from a tour of African countries on October 20, President Erdogan talked to journalists on the plane. One of the journalists asked a question: “Earlier you said that ‘Ankara has no patience with what is happening in Syria, we will take the necessary steps’. Can these words be considered as a signal about a possible Turkish cross-border operation?

“We continue to conduct operations in sensitive points of the region for us. There will be absolutely no compromises. We will continue this process in Syria. At the moment, I do not know what the regime (of the President of the Syrian Arab Republic Bashar al-Assad) will do, but we will continue to do everything necessary against their actions, especially in Idlib. And we will continue to strike back with all our heavy weapons. We cannot let what is happening take its course,” said the Turkish president, answering the question.

It is assumed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will discuss this issue with US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit to be held in Rome at the end of October, and if negotiations fail, the operation will be launched. The planned military invasion will be aimed at “cleaning up”, first of all, the territory of Tel Rifaat, from where attacks on Turkey are regularly carried out.

Turkey considers People’s Self-Defence Units (YPG) as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the United States and Turkey consider to be a terrorist organisation. During his public statements last week, Erdogan linked the PKK and YPG not only to terrorism against Turkey, but also to drug trafficking in Europe.

Control over Tel Rifaat is a glimmer of hope for Ankara

Ankara has long stated that the YPG forces should withdraw at least 30 kilometres from the border. In addition, according to the statement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkey, in mid-October, two special operations police officers were killed as a result of an attack on an armoured personnel carrier via a guided missile fired by PKK/YPG militants between Azaz and Mare in the area of Operation Euphrates Shield. After this attack, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that this attack was the “last straw”.

“We will take the necessary steps to solve these problems as soon as possible,” he said. Then these statements made by Erdogan were regarded as a signal for an operation against Syria.

Turkey has conducted three separate cross-border operations in northern Syria. However, neither the operations carried out, nor the money that the AKP government invested in pro-Turkish militants in the region, nor the military and civilian forces that it sent to manage these territories, could help in the fight against terrorism and the growing problem of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Almost every day news comes from Syria about attacks, deaths or injuries of members of the Turkish armed forces.

Moreover, the complicated economic situation in Turkey compared to the period when the Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch or Source of Peace operations were carried out raises many questions about the inevitable financial costs of a new military invasion. Despite these conditions, the Erdogan government is signalling a 4th military operation in northern Syria.

Judging by the location of the concentration of military forces on the border, as well as the incidents of attacks on Turkey and the killings of Turkish soldiers, all this indicates that the operation will be carried out in Tel Rifaat.

The city of Tel Rifaat, because of its location, is important both for Turkey and for the Assad administration. Taking control of Tel Rifaat, located north of Aleppo, represents a small glimmer of hope for Ankara, as armed groups supported by the Turkish Armed Forces will also try to take control of Aleppo.

Moscow does not change its position

However, in order for Turkey to conduct a safe operation in the region, it must also be able to use the airspace and send ground troops to the region under the protection of the Turkish Air Force. There are no hints that Russia will open the airspace it controls in the Tel Rifaat area to Turkish aircraft. On the contrary, the developments around Tel Rifaat also show that there are serious disagreements on this issue.

Over the past two weeks, both the unmanned aerial vehicles of the Turkish side and the Syrian Air Force have been distributing leaflets in the region. While Turkish statements in Arabic urge civilians to stay away from PYD-YPG facilities in the Tel Rifaat area, statements made by Russian and Assad officials contain a warning that they should move away from the Mare-Azaz line, which is under the control of local pro-Turkish armed groups.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to mediate agreements between the Syrian government, the Syrian Kurds and Turkey. In this sense, Moscow has not changed its position. Events also indicate that at the meeting in Sochi on September 29, the parties did not come to an agreement. Putin demanded that Erdogan withdraw terrorist groups from Idlib and ordered the Syrian forces, supported by Russia, to withdraw the terrorist organisation Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other armed groups, as well as leave the two main highways (M4 and M5) that pass through this area.

In addition to all this, there was the news from Geneva last weekend that the Syrian opposition and the Assad government agreed to start working on a draft of a new constitution. It is worth seriously thinking about what a new Turkish military operation will look like, in conditions when diplomacy is gaining weight in Syria for the first time in many years. In the Arab press and social networks, one can observe an increase in publications about how attacks on Turkish armed forces and pro-Turkish militants are being carried out in the Idlib region, as well as images of damaged military armoured vehicles.

It is obvious that the AKP government, which has found itself at an impasse in the face of the economic crisis, on the one hand, and the growth of the opposition’s approval rating, is looking for a way out. Given that Turkish soldiers are being attacked in both regions (Idlib and Tel Rifaat), and the AKP government is preparing only for an operation against the PYD-YPG, and does not respond to attacks in Idlib, this suggests that the true goal is not to fight terrorism, but a “silent goal” as an attempt to keep the dwindling support of the AKP electorate.

It should be noted that until today, Erdogan never thought that he would face an election that would be of such vital importance to him. Defeat in the election will be the end of Erdogan and his inner circle. In other words, if he needs a war to continue his presidential term, Erdogan will take this risk.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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