Turkey has been engaged in a military offensive in Syria in an effort to try and neutralize the threat of Kurdish separatism. While the Turks will continue to devote considerable resources on the Syrian Kurds and their links to Turkey’s own Kurdish minority, Ankara has its eyes on a much more ambitious imperative: shaping the future of Syria and the region beyond. Turkey’s push into Syria, however, carries the risk of enabling Daesh to stage a comeback, but it could also help counter Iran’s strengthened regional position. The United States will have to deal with the Turkish intervention carefully in order to mitigate the risks and reap any rewards.
It has been two weeks since Turkey began its offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northeastern Syria. On Jan. 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkish military operations against Kurdish militants would extend as far as the northeastern end of Syria along the border with Iraq. Two days later Erdogan told reporters on Jan. 28 that his country would “clean” its entire border with Syria. In a Jan. 30 press release, the Turkish military claimed that its troops and allied Syrian militiamen have killed 649 militants affiliated with Syrian Kurdish group the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), Turkey’s own separatist movement the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and Daesh.
Public pronouncements aside, the Turks know that they cannot simply seize control of all the Syrian Kurdish areas along their border. Afrin, a Kurdish outpost in northwestern Syria, is separated from the main Syrian Kurdish region in the northeast by a Turkish buffer zone. It will be a long time before Turkey can subdue the Kurdish resistance in Afrin and push toward Manbij and then further into the main Kurdish areas. Even assuming the United States were to turn a blind eye to the Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Kurds, it is unlikely that Ankara can physically seize control of these areas.
Turkey knows, in the end, that achieving a political settlement with the Syrian Kurds is inevitable. In order to negotiate from a position of strength, Turkey must first have the upper hand in the battlespace. Turkey is relying heavily on local Arab proxy groups, ranging from Salafist-jihadist groups to nationalists, in this battle against the Kurds. One of the challenges that the Turks face is making sure that this proxy force remains a cohesive entity. Ultimately, the Turkish goal is to bottle up the Kurds in the northeast by making sure that the areas around them are dominated by Sunni Arabs beholden to Ankara.
The Daesh Difficulty
Here is where Turkey’s interests threaten to undo the gains made against Daesh. The YPG- dominated Syrian Democratic Front is the force that degraded the jihadist entity and is in control of Raqqa – the former capital of Daesh’s caliphate. If Syrian Kurdish forces need to divert their resources to defend themselves against a Turkish military advance, Daesh could seize the opportunity to try to stage a comeback. Should that happen, relying on Kurdish-led forces to counter a Daesh resurgence is a losing proposition – given that Raqqa and Deir Ezzour are Sunni Arab majority regions. That said, it will be very difficult for a Turkish-backed Sunni Arab force to supplant the Syrian Kurds while preventing Daesh from exploiting the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
The United States needs to pursue an arrangement that will balance Turkish interests and the need to sustain the momentum of the efforts against Daesh. On the one hand, the Syrian Kurds are our tactical allies; on the other, Turkey is a strategic partner of the United States. Washington will need to achieve a delicate equilibrium between the two. And there is more at stake than the possibility of a Daesh resurgence. The critical policy challenge facing the U.S. is a stronger Iranian footprint in Syria and in the broader region, especially with many Arab states in meltdown mode.
The Threat of a Stronger Iran
Iran’s enhanced regional position has been the unintended cost of degrading Daesh. In many ways, this was expected, given that the only forces that could uproot Daesh from its home turf in Iraq were pro-Iranian Arab Shiite actors. Furthermore, there has been a convergence of U.S. and Iranian (as well as Russian) interests in Syria, where the survival of the Assad regime has prevented Daesh from making any meaningful expansion westward from its environs in eastern Syria. These factors allowed Iran to secure a contiguous sphere of influence from its western border to the Mediterranean, posing a direct threat to U.S. and regional security interests.
Indeed, our Arab and Israeli allies see this threat all too clearly. There is a reason why the Saudis and the Israelis have been openly working towards cooperation against Tehran. While the Saudis and other Gulf allies are a bit removed from Syria, the strengthening of the Assad regime has positioned Iran on Israel’s northern doorstep. The Israelis are threatening to take action against Tehran and its allies in both Syria and Lebanon; this threat was the topic of discussion in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jan. 29 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The next day, a Russian delegation of senior diplomats, army commanders and intelligence officials arrived in Israel for follow-up conversations.
While the Israelis are seeking Russian assistance in curbing Iran’s regional ambitions, they know Moscow is very limited in how much it can deliver regarding Tehran. At the very least, Russia depends on Iran’s support in order to sustain the Assad regime. Israel, therefore, will likely be provoked into unilateral action against both the Levantine states, which is not in the United States’ interest, as this will exacerbate regional insecurity.
Turkey as a Bulwark
In this scenario, Turkey’s intervention in Syria may actually be helpful to U.S. and regional security interests. Turkey and Iran are the region’s two historic rivals. Arab states are reluctant to align with Turkey as a way to counter Iran – understandably so, given the Ottoman legacy. However, they have very little choice in the matter. Alone they cannot confront Iran, and Turkey is the only regional player strategically positioned to roll back Iran’s influence in Syria – the one country that is critical to Iran’s entire regional strategy.
A Turkish military presence in northern Syria thus could serve as a check on Iran’s ability to use the country as a springboard to project power in the region. As a Sunni country and a regional power, Turkey has a formidable ability to mobilize the opponents of the Assad regime and tie down the Iranians in Syria for the near future. Though the rebels lost Aleppo to the Iranian-backed regime in December 2016, Turkey’s latest military moves have the potential to weaken the regime’s position in the country’s largest city.
It will be some time before the Turks can turn their attention to rolling back the Iranians in Syria. At present, Turkey is focused on gaining the upper hand against the Kurds and, in the process, reviving the Syrian rebels. Ankara will have to be careful so as not to allow Daesh the ability to exploit the situation. While Turkey is pursuing its own regional objectives, its efforts can serve U.S. interests in terms of dealing with both Shiite and Sunni radicalism. The Syrian battlespace is rapidly becoming a more complex arena where the actions of various players are forcing a constant recalibration on the part of Washington. The Trump administration will need to meticulously juggle the competing interests of the Turks, Arabs, Kurds and the Israelis so as to prevent further instability in the region.
Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
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