is Turkey poised to invade Syria?

These considerations appear to have little sway on Erdogan and journalists who act as his unofficial spokesmen. Ibrahim Karagul, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Safak, who believes that the PYD is more dangerous than IS, said there is a grand design to establish a Kurdish corridor to carry oil from Kurdish northern Iraq to the Mediterranean over Syria...

Turkish army tanks take up position on the Turkish-Syrian border near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, Oct. 6, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

In his first public statement following the June 7 general elections that dashed his hopes of becoming Turkey’s sole leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted the Syrian Kurds, and their nominal allies the United States, after they defeated the Islamic State (IS) in the northern Syrian town of Tell Abyad.

SummaryPrint The Turkish military is concerned a military engagement in northern Syria has no international support.
Author Semih Idiz Posted July 1, 2015, al-monitor

“Look at the West that is striking Arabs and Turkmens in Tell Abyad and regretfully placing the terrorist groups PYD [Democratic Union Party] and PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] in their place. … How can we consider this West to be honest?” Erdogan said, referring to the air support the United States was giving to the Syrian Kurdish PYD fighting against IS.

The PKK has been waging a long-standing armed campaign for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, for which it has been designated as a terrorist group by Ankara and Washington. It is also fighting against IS in northern Syria.

Erdogan upped the ante June 27 and said Turkey would not allow any attempts to establish a Kurdish entity in northern Syria. “We will never allow a state to be established in northern Syria and in the south of our country. No matter what the cost, we will continue our struggle in this regard,” Erdogan said.

He added that Turkey would allow attempts to change the region’s demography, a reference to claims that the PYD is ethnically cleansing Tell Abyad, and other areas captured from IS, of Arabs and Turkmens. Erdogan’s remarks were followed by a slew of reports in the media indicating that the Turkish military acting on orders from the government had prepared contingency plans to enter Syria and establish a buffer zone along the Turkish border of 100 kilometers (62 miles) long and 10-15 kilometers (6-9 miles) wide.

These reports cited officials who argue that this will not only meet Turkey’s security requirements, but also establish a safe haven for Syrian refugees who continue to flood into Turkey. They also say it will enable Turkey to contribute more effectively to the fight against IS, thus belying claims in the Western media that Ankara is aiding such groups.

Given Erdogan’s angry remarks, many believe this intervention’s main purpose is to prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing a contiguous zone in the region. Turkey’s buffer zone would fall between the Kurdish town of Kobani and Jarablus to its west, which the Kurds want to capture from IS.

Although it is opposed to any Kurdish entity along Turkey’s borders, the Turkish military is said to be wary of being dragged by the government into a military adventure in Syria. Reports from the Chief of General Staff’s office leaked to the media indicate that the top brass wants Ankara to consider the international ramifications of an engagement in a complex and multilayered conflict.

Serpil Cevikcan, a journalist for Milliyet who is in close contact with the military, has cited military sources who say they are ready to carry out any order from the government, but express concern about the diplomatic consequences. “The Chief of General Staff’s office has conveyed its view that for such a directive to be successful, the political, military and diplomatic infrastructure has to be established in such a way as to allay all risks that may emerge,” Cevikcan wrote in her column.

She said the military wants the matter to be discussed not just with the United States, but also with Russia and Iran and the regime in Damascus, which seems unlikely given that Ankara has burned all its bridges with the Syrian regime. It is also a foregone conclusion that Moscow and Tehran would oppose a buffer zone established by Turkey in Syria, having expressed their opposition to this in the past.

Retired Ambassador Umit Pamir, a member of the Global Relations Forum, also believes that entering Syria without approval from the United Nations, or the approval of a strong coalition of countries, is risky. He nevertheless believes that Moscow and Tehran can be convinced of the merits of such an operation if it is mounted against IS. But this requires Ankara to prioritize the fight against IS, which it has not done to date.

“Turkey has to work with an international coalition, otherwise it will result in serious complications,” Pamir told Al-Monitor.

Washington, for its part, appears unenthusiastic about a step by Turkey that many believe would be against the Kurds. Asked about the buffer zone Turkey is said to be planning in Syria, Mark Toner, a deputy spokesman for the State Department, told reporters June 29 that Washington’s position had not changed.

“The creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone or any other military enforced zone presents significant challenges. … They include military, financial, but also humanitarian challenges that we need to obviously consider in the broader context,” Toner said. He added that they “don’t have any ground truth” on the reported plans by Turkey. “All we’ve seen, frankly, are press reports,” he said.

Deniz Zeyrek, a veteran journalist who works for Hurriyet, indicates that the military is also concerned about mounting an operation on the orders of a caretaker government that lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7 elections. “The armed forces say that when the government’s directive is carried out there will have to be responsibility for the negative situations and risks that may emerge, and expect this to rest with the new government,” Zeyrek wrote June 27. 

Retired Brig. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu, a commentator on military matters, is among those who see no advantages to an operation in Syria. “Three objectives are mentioned for such an operation: to prevent IS or the PYD from gaining control of areas bordering Turkey, and to establish a safe haven for refugees. But we have multiple enemies here, and it is not clear who we are supposed to fight,” Kuloglu told Al-Monitor. He also pointed to complications if international support for this operation is not obtained.

These considerations appear to have little sway on Erdogan and journalists who act as his unofficial spokesmen. Ibrahim Karagul, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Safak, who believes that the PYD is more dangerous than IS, said there is a grand design to establish a Kurdish corridor to carry oil from Kurdish northern Iraq to the Mediterranean over Syria.

“The aim is to make a lasting change to the map of the entire region and to restrict countries like Turkey that have an extraordinary power to influence developments. … If successful, this will be the biggest trap set for Turkey since the invasion of Iraq,” Karagul claimed, arguing this must be prevented at all costs.

Meanwhile, there are those who say Erdogan does not have the authority to declare what amounts to a “casus belli,” and point out that this authority rests with the parliament. Ibrahim Kaboglu, a professor of constitutional law, says that under the present constitution the president can only give such a directive if parliament is not sitting and there is a sudden attack on the country. “This is not the case today and so the power to give such orders rests with the Grand National Assembly,” Kaboglu told daily Cumhuriyet.

The June 7 elections produced a hung parliament that is unlikely to authorize such an invasion given that opposition parties are opposed to this. Opinion polls have also shown consistently that a large portion of the Turkish public is opposed to any entanglement in Syria.

There are also those who claim that Erdogan wants an intervention in Syria to divert attention away from the Justice and Development Party’s election losses and to engineer a situation suited to his political ambitions. 

Such speculations aside, the National Security Council — an advisory board headed by the president and comprising the prime minister, relevant ministers and senior military officials — made a statement after it met June 29 that Turkey is not on the verge of any immediate action with regard to Syria. It merely indicated Turkey was “following developments in Syria with concern.”

Given the confusing and seemingly intractable situation in Syria, this appears to be all that Ankara can do at the moment if it does not want to enter a fray from which it is unlikely to extricate itself unscarred.

Turkish military edges closer to Syria intervention

Speculation is at an all-time high in Turkey over potential militarily intervention in Syria to set up a security zone in the Jarablus area linking the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Afrin. An anonymous source informed Al-Monitor that the Turkish General Staff has informed the government that the military units intended to take part in a military operation will be done with their preparations and ready to go by the second week in July.

SummaryPrint Despite the Turkish military's deep reservations, it appears to be preparing itself to enter Syria in the next two weeks.
Author Metin Gurcan Posted July 1, 2015
TranslatorTimur Göksel

If there is such an operation in the next two weeks, we will know that the Turkish military, despite its reservations, had no alternative but to implement the political directives it was given and was compelled to conduct the operation despite all the challenges. If no such operation is carried out in two weeks, we will know that the Turkish generals' cautious approach won the day and the Turkish military avoided getting caught in Syrian quagmire.

What the journalists must do now is leave aside the debates in Ankara and focus on military movements at the Special Forces Command, the 5th Armored Brigade at Gaziantep, the 20th Armored Brigade at Urfa and the 2nd Tactical Air Force at Diyarbakir, which would spearhead a possible Syrian operation. It is time to start observing the field developments pertinent to a possible military intervention in Syria.

In my ​May 4 article for Al-Monitor, I noted that the realism of the Turkish military command was stopping President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the rest of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government from intervening militarily in Syria. So what changed since May 4 to give credence to reports of military intervention?

Developments in Turkey’s domestic politics, events in Syria and deteriorating relations with the United States all played parts in the shift toward serious consideration of intervention.

In a chat with an official from the US Embassy in Ankara after my May 11 article, the first question he asked was about the headline. Why was it important what the military thought of the election results, he wanted to know.

I was particularly curious about how the Turkish military would assess the electoral success of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which it sees as political extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terror organization. The military institution in which I served for a long time did not surprise me. The fear of the Kurds that has traditionally lurked in the subconscious of the Turkish military surfaced. While there was increasing admiration of the HDP in the Turkish mainstream media and liberal quarters, the Turkish military’s phobia became more pronounced. This appears to have played a part in easing a bit of the military’s resistance to intervene in Syria.

Also restraining the AKP government were developments in Syria after Tell Abyad fell under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which the Turkish military still sees as the Syrian extension of the PKK. When the PYD took Tell Abyad, the Kurdish cantons of Jazeera and Kobani became contiguous. My next piece asked the same question the Turkish military was asking after its shock at Tell Abyad falling so easily to the PYD: What next?

Intelligence reports reaching Ankara after the fall of Tell Abyad said the PYD was now turning westward to reach the last Kurdish canton, Afrin, and that the final goal of the PYD was to create a Kurdish corridor that will abut Turkey and reach the sea. Those reports naturally encouraged AKP leaders to disregard any restraints stemming from the military’s realism.

Another factor that weakened the "braking mechanism" was the crisis of confidence the Turkish military has been having with the US plans for Syria. Security officials who recently spoke to Al-Monitor in Ankara pointed to mounting tension between the US and Turkish security bureaucracies. These sources insist that Ankara’s worst fear is for the United States to reach an understanding with the Syrian regime to smash the Islamic State and hand over areas it vacates to the PYD. According to these officials, the Kurdish corridor project with its “Made in the USA” tag have been testing the limits of the traditional alliance between Turkey and the United States.

For the past three or four days especially, the pro-government news media has been beating the drums of war and breathlessly reporting that the AKP government has instructed the Turkish high command to prepare for a military security zone in Syria, that the preparations for a military operation are underway and that it is only a matter of time to start the operation to take over the Marea Line region that will cover Jarablus south to a security zone.

The latest reports say that Turkey, determined to prevent either IS or the PYD from controlling the Jarablus area, will form a security belt both against the PYD’s military arm and IS. They claim that, initially, 18,000 Turkish soldiers will enter Syria to secure the area and then control the region by fire with its long-range artillery and other firepower available to the army and the air force.

There have been misguided and historically false comments that the legitimacy of the operation could be assured, as Israel did in south Lebanon, by declaring a unilateral security zone, reserving the right to intervene militarily without a UN decision.

The Turkish public, meanwhile, has found out that many columnists close to the government were also extensively informed about military strategy, tactics and weapons.

Security sources who spoke to Al-Monitor in Ankara emphasized some interesting points. The first is the risk of the AKP and Erdogan exploiting a possible Syrian operation for an early election campaign. One source who asked not to be identified said, “This risk really worries the military. Erdogan and the AKP, with their massive media power, could engineer a major perception of victory and use that to go for early elections. This is why the military is awaiting the instructions of a new government instead of a government that is basically deposed."

Another source said high-level command visits to Gaziantep and Urfa offer important clues about preparations for an operation. “Such an operation requires clear operational orders, a clear strategic goal, clear rules of engagement, clear definitions of friend and foe and a well-drawn-out calendar. At the moment all these are very unclear, even obscure. Under such uncertainty, how can you issue operational and tactical orders to your units?”

From these words, it is clear the military hasn’t overcome its concerns and has unanswered questions about the mission, tactics and techniques of the operation. Yes, the AKP government might have eased some of the high command's reservations on an operation in Syria, but it hasn’t yet fully removed them.

In sum, it is still possible to say that despite the strong wishes of the AKP and Erdogan, the Turkish military’s realism still has a restraining effect on a military operation, albeit one somewhat less effective than it was last month.

The next two weeks are critical. The current situation may be influenced by two factors. The first is how the United States will perceive the developments and react to them, and the second will be whether the PYD will persuade Ankara of its goodwill.