Turkish Incursion Could Prove Game Changer in Syrian War

  • Risky operation shows shift in demand that Assad step down
  • Ankara appears to have checked in with Moscow and Washington

Turkey’s incursion into Syria reflects a shift away from its insistence that President Bashar al-Assad be removed from power in any settlement there and may start to close the gap between the international coalitions that have helped keep the country’s civil war raging, analysts and diplomats say.

In recent months, Turkey has indicated a readiness to accept a transitional role for Assad in any political solution, something Unal Cevikoz, a retired senior Turkish diplomat, called a major change.

Turkish tanks proceed to Jarablus on Aug. 25.
Turkish tanks proceed to Jarablus on Aug. 25.
Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

“Turkey has realized there are more important challenges than removing Assad,” said Cevikoz, and that in turn has opened the door to improvements in Ankara’s relationships with Russia and Iran, Assad’s main backers. Turkey would not have launched “Operation Euphrates Shield” on Wednesday without a green light from Russia, he said.

Outside powers involved in Syria’s conflict have divided sharply over the fate of Assad. Turkey and the Gulf states insisted he must step down before any settlement, while Russia and Iran demanded that he stay in power. The U.S. has carved out a middle position open to a transitional role for him.

The challenges Ankara is now prioritizing over Assad include fighting Islamic State, which has stepped up its terrorist campaign inside Turkey, and -- even more importantly -- stopping the advance of Kurdish forces along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey sees the Kurdish militia in Syria as a branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, an insurgent force it is trying to crush inside its borders.

Wednesday’s incursion plunges Turkey into an intractable conflict that has already sucked in Russia and Iran, lasting longer and claiming more victims than the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. Since Turkey already hosts 2.5 million Syrian refugees, the chaos across its border poses still another growing challenge.

Turkish tanks and special forces accompanied the Free Syrian Army across the border early in the morning, headed for the Islamic State-held town of Jarablus, just west of the Euphrates. Turkish officials said the operation would also target Kurdish forces, which recently seized Manbij, about 20 miles south of Jarablus.

Members of the FSA patrol the Kaklijah village of Jarabulus on Aug. 24.
Members of the FSA patrol the Kaklijah village of Jarabulus on Aug. 24.
Photographer: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The focus on Kurdish militias risked further tension with the U.S., at a low point in their relations, given that Syria’s Kurds are key U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State. Instead, the operation appears to have provided ground for cooperation there as well.

Biden Visiting

The U.S. not only said it supports the Turkish operation, but on a visit to Ankara on Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden backed a Turkish demand that the Kurdish forces retreat east of the Euphrates river. That would mean giving up Manbij, seized from Islamic State on Aug. 12, with U.S. participation.

“The capture of Manbij has changed things dramatically,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who has run an influential Syria commentary forum for much of the war. “American special forces helped the Kurds to capture a swathe of territory that put them in reach of building a Kurdish state. That clearly terrified the Turks.”

Robert Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, said in a phone interview from the U.S. that after creating tensions with Turkey by supporting the Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units, “the Americans are choosing not to resist.”

“The Americans have accepted that Turkey has sensitivities in that border and they don’t want to cause too much conflict with the Turks,” added Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Turkey has been agitating for years to create a buffer zone along its border with Syria to prevent Syria’s Kurds from connecting the two areas they hold and establishing their own state, which they have named Rojava. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey previously failed to persuade the U.S. to help with the buffer zone, however, and was unwilling to act alone. He would have faced opposition from the Assad regime as well as its Russian and Iranian backers. That calculation now appears to have changed.

Russians Understand

“The interesting thing is that there has been basically no Russian reaction” to the Turkish incursion, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow bureau of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Russians understand Turkey’s legitimate interest on the Kurdish issue, and it looks like Russia may have agreed not to object to a limited operation, in exchange for Turkey being more cooperative on a political settlement with Assad.”

Attitudes toward the Kurds appear also to be changing more widely, as the YPG fighters have moved from taking territory populated mainly by ethnic Kurds, to predominantly Arab lands. Syria’s military, which had previously treated the Kurds as neutrals if not allies, recently bombed YPG positions, risking a clash with the U.S.

“There’s increasingly an alignment on containing the Kurds in Syria,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group. “The Syrian regime, Russia, Iran and Turkey are all interested in containing the Kurds in Syria and are for the first time willing to move toward concrete steps to make that happen.”

Turkey may also have learned from Putin’s entrance into the Syrian war last year, which has given him a strong voice at the diplomatic table. “This action inevitably gives Turkey a place in the peace process,” said Ilter Turan, professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

That doesn’t necessarily leave the U.S. out in the cold, so long as it can prevent a clash between its Kurdish and Turkish allies, according to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, who runs the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank. He said Turkey’s shift in its policy to Assad is helping a new international approach to take shape.

“Now it seems everyone is converging around the U.S. position, which is that we need a solution but Assad cannot remain in power permanently, though he can be part of a transition,” said Unluhisarcikli.

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