The cost of war
Turkey seems set to be dragged further into Syria’s quagmire after a heinous attack in Ankara on Feb. 17 left 28 dead and 61 wounded.
A day after the blast, the government identified the perpetrator as a member of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while the Turkish Air Force conducted cross-border operations in northern Iraq, targeting PKK camps.
But Saleh Muslim, the co-chair of the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), denied Ankara’s claims, instead accusing Turkey of seeking an excuse to attack Syrian Kurds.
Indeed, Turkey has been shelling Syrian Kurdish forces since last Saturday to deny the YPG control of Azez, a Syrian town near the Turkish border that separates the Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Kobane.
Speculation over a possible Saudi-backed Turkish intervention in Syria has risen, with Saudi planes recently arriving at İncirlik airbase.
Deputy PM Yalçın Akdoğan explained that what they wanted to create was a secure, no-conflict zone 10 kilometers inside Syria that would include Azez.
It is debatable whether or not a military incursion into Syria would help protect its red lines, yet Turkey is likely to face high military, economic and political costs in the event of a ground offensive.
International relations scholar Serhat Güvenç from Istanbul’s Kadir Has University says the cost of a military incursion would depend upon the time span and the scope of the operation. Any way you cut it, however, entering 10 kilometers into Syria is a risky endeavor for Turkey.
Especially since the downing of Russian plane in November 2015, anti-access/area-denial challenges (a2/ad) presented by Russia air defense systems have raised the stakes of launching an air campaign exponentially for Turkey. In fact, a cross-border operation without air cover could result in severe losses for Turkish troops.
Güvenç also asserts that while Turkey has a quantity advantage, Russia has the edge in quality with its SU-35s and SU-30 SMs in Latakia.
“Considering the current conditions on the ground and the respective capacity of the actors involved, conventional wisdom requires Turkey to avoid military involvement in Syria’s conflict,” Güvenç said.
Speaking of costs… What about the economic indicators?
As the fighting rages in Syria, political uncertainties have hit exchange rates, with the Turkish Lira plunging to around 3 to the dollar. Analysts largely attributed the lira’s slide last week to the escalation of geopolitical risks in Turkey
So far, the geopolitical pressure seems to be essentially under control due to favorable macro-economic indicators, but in the event of an actual operation, investments and financial markets could take a hit.
In addition, a military confrontation with Syria would deal a severe blow to tourism, which has already been suffering due to the crisis with Russia and the threat of terrorism.
As for the political costs, the United States and Europe have called on Turkey to cease its bombardment of the PYD. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council has urged Ankara to comply with international law in Syria.
Turkey’s attempts to drive a wedge between Washington and the PYD have failed, basically because geopolitical realities on the ground render the PYD a tactical ally for the U.S. against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Besides, both the U.S. and Europe want to avoid escalating the crisis into a military conflict between NATO and Russia.
Thus, Turkey might face further isolation as long as it insists on treating the PYD, PKK and ISIL on equal terms. Worse, Turkey’s unilateral intervention could send bilateral relations with Washington to a new low.
Given that the costs of a military operation far exceed the benefits, rather than flex its muscles, Turkey requires a change in perspective and more flexible diplomacy – something that would help it better achieve its goals in the international arena.