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Prospects for a new Turkish military intervention in Syria

Vehicles of Turkish Armed Forces are being deployed to the Syrian border on 16 February 2020 [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency]
Vehicles of Turkish Armed Forces are being deployed to the Syrian border on 16 February 2020 [Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency]

Contrary to its precedents, the prospects for a new Turkish intervention into Syrian territory seem linked to more diverse and complex determinants. In addition to the positions of Moscow and Washington, there are factors related to major changes that have taken place and are taking place in recent times, the most important of which is the Russian war on Ukraine and the international and regional interactions that led to it, all of which must affect Ankara's decision regarding the new "military operation" Erdogan hinted at on Monday.

The initial US response did not take long to come, as State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the supposed operation would "further undermine regional stability and put at risk U.S. forces and the coalition's campaign against ISIS." While no official comment has been issued by Moscow regarding the Turkish president's statements, we know that Russia on the one hand and the US on the other, put an end to the Turkish army's advancement in the enclave between Tel Abyad and Ras Al-Ain in the spring of 2019.

The Turkish president was not satisfied with general talk about the supposed operation but announced that the issue would be discussed at the UN National Security Council meeting, which is expected to take place today and that the operation would begin as soon as the military and security institutions finish developing their plans and assessments. This sparked interest in the media and various possibilities and fears in the Kurdish and Syrian public opinion.

Despite the "skirmishes" that have been going on for months between Turkiye and its armed Syrian allies on the one hand, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other, in more than one area, the information received from the area does not refer to any military mobilisation by the Turkish army or the armed factions given the high level of concern among the civilian population about the consequences of a possible new war.

READ: Syria says any Turkish incursion amounts to 'war crimes'

The new card that fell "from the sky" in the hands of Ankara is the request of both Sweden and Finland to join NATO. The alliance requires the approval of all member states to allow new countries to join, meaning that every member state has the right to veto candidates for membership. Turkiye has announced, through both its president and foreign minister, conditions for its acceptance of the two countries, which are afraid of the expansionist ambitions of Vladimir Putin. These conditions can be summed up by the two countries' cessation of support for the PKK and its branches, and the lifting of the ban imposed on Turkiye in arms sales due to Turkish interventions into areas that were under Kurdish forces' control.

In fact, Finland has nothing to do with the first Turkish accusation, while Sweden considers the PKK a terrorist organisation. However, Ankara thinks differently, as it considers the Democratic Union Party, the People's Protection Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces as terrorist organisations, and it wants the two countries to share this belief, although it has failed to convince any country to do so. Only Bashar Al-Assad's regime agrees with this labelling.

In addition, the Democratic Union Party has a representative office in Moscow, and Washington has supported the Syrian Democratic Forces with money and weapons for years in the context of the war against Daesh. There are also several European countries that are members of NATO that maintain various levels of ties with the SDF, including France and Germany.

The sum of these considerations leads one to the believe that the Turkish objection to the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO is a political card used to pressure its allies, led by the US, to obtain concessions on some issues of dispute. It is also carrot extended to Russia to gain certain gains at a difficult time for Putin, who is fighting his fateful war in Ukraine.

What are the gains that Erdogan seeks to obtain from Washington or Moscow, or from both?

After years of absence, the title of the "safe zone" reappeared in the words of the Turkish president in the context of his talk about the possible new military operation. He said that it would extend to a depth of 30 kilometres inside Syrian territory, in a repetition of the number that recurs whenever Turkiye announces its intention to launch a new operation. This is accompanied by talk of the return of some Syrian refugees to resettle there, which in the past few weeks has occupied the headlines of news and internal discussions in Turkiye.

READ: Is NATO turning into an 'alliance on which the sun never sets'?

We can say, then, that this is the "Turkish offer" in return for agreeing to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, i.e. allowing the Turkish army to infiltrate Syrian territory to reach the M5 highway. This means the removal of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a possible displacement of the population, in preparation for the settlement of some Syrian refugees from Turkiye in their place.

Washington rejected the offer, as we saw in the State Department's statement, but does this refusal reach the level of a practical response to any possible unilateral Turkish invasion? We cannot predict this, especially in the absence of active diplomatic channels between Washington and Ankara. As for Moscow, which is immersed in Ukraine, it may be tempted by Turkiye's adherence to the veto card regarding the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in NATO, to turn a blind eye to Turkish ambitions.

This all comes at a time of the internal struggle for power in Turkiye given the approaching date of the presidential and parliamentary elections, dune in June next year, with the government hoping that this new endeavour will cover up the steadily worsening economic situation.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 25 May 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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