Briefing on Turkey’s Incursion into Syria

Turkey’s incursion into Syria has radically changed the dynamic of the conflict and an end to the conflict in its current configuration might now be in sight.

  • Russia has made little objection to Turkey’s incursion into Syria, allowing Ankara to carve out a chunk of territory for its proxies.
  • This could mark the end of the conflict in Syria in its current form, at least in the north, and gives us an image of the possible fault lines of post-current-conflict Syria.
  • However, the conflict is still hot and a confrontation between Turkey and Iran is a worrying new possibility.

Turkey is now embedded in the Syrian conflict and appears committed to achieving its aims. This has radically changed the dynamic of the conflict, particularly in light of Russia’s tacit acceptance of Turkey’s presence. Turkish troops are operating and dying at least 30km into the country, and now some have possibly been kidnapped by Islamic State (IS) militants. The airstrike last week, which killed several Turkish soldiers, likely carried out by the Syrian air force, but blamed by others on a Russian plane and an Iranian drone, demonstrates the combustibility of this space.

Russia and Turkey have almost certainly reached an agreement concerning Turkey’s activities in Syria. This likely allows Turkey to operate in certain parts of Syria but to leave Bashar Al-Assad in power. This would explain Russia’s muted response to Turkey’s actions until Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comment on 29 November that his forces would topple Assad, likely to be mostly grandstanding.

Turkey would not want a military confrontation with Russia and has been pursuing warmer ties. Yet Turkey has been pushing further and further into IS and YPG-controlled territory in Syria, with restrained commentary from Moscow, suggesting it has Russian permission, tacit or otherwise. It is likely seeking to establish a zone of control for its proxies in Syria. This will put pressure on Kurdish groups in areas near its borders, prevent these from having uninterrupted control of regions bordering Turkey, prevent Assad’s forces from having uninterrupted control of these same regions, and give Turkey greater leverage in the future of Syria.

That Russia would allow Turkey to pursue these objectives suggests Moscow is willing to accept Turkish dominion in parts of Syria. This may slowly spell an end to the conflict in its current configuration. Russia is seeking an exit from Syria as quickly as possible, but one that it sees as advantageous. It also does not want to clash with Turkey. If Turkey and its proxies manage to capture and hold a swathe of North and East Syria, this would create a de facto opposition-controlled area, more immovable from before but away from Assad’s Alawite heartlands. Assad’s forces would be unable to dislodge these forces without Russian support, unlikely to be given for fear of sparking conflict with Turkey. In return, Turkey may be allowing opposition groups it once supported in other parts of the country to fall, as witnessed currently in Aleppo.

In this scenario, both sides, the opposition and Assad, would likely then come to the negotiating table, effectively forced by Russia and Turkey’s manoeuvring. Thus, the stage is set for a race for Turkey and its allies on the one hand, and Assad’s allies on the other, to carve out bits of the country for themselves in preparation for negotiations. And we can begin to see the fault lines for an imminent new version of Syria. Assad’s forces would likely begin to try and close the gap between Hama and Aleppo by retaking Idlib and surrounding areas. Turkey and its proxies would dominate the east of the country and probably begin chipping away at Kurdish territory.

Turkey would have what it wanted: influence to the south of its borders. And Russia would be able to put breaks on its involvement in the conflict and keep its proxy, Assad, in power. However, as noted, the Syrian conflict is still very hot, and a confrontation between Turkey and Assad’s forces, supported by his other benefactor, Iran, is far from impossible, as similar tensions play out in neighbouring Iraq. Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias are making advances near the Syrian border as part of the Mosul assault, disquieting Turkey. A new front may be opened in the conflict if these militias create a bridge into Syria’s east for Iranian proxies. Iran may not be as willing as Russia to accept Turkish gains at Syrian expense.


28 November 2016

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Photo credit: Reuters