Is Turkey spreading itself too thin?

Is Turkey spreading itself too thin?

Turkey’s cross-border operation inside Syria to clear the area from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has entered its second week, and one wonders whether the Free Syrian Army (FSA) may even walk all the way to Damascus in front of the Turkish army. After all, it has faced very little resistance on the way to capturing the Azaz-Jarablus corridor. But it may be a new ballgame from this point on.

The fundamental ambiguity about the Euphrates Shield Operation is what it aims to achieve. If it was to clear the border of ISIL, then the mission has been accomplished. If it is to break a possible Kurdish corridor between Afrin and Kobane, that mission is also completed. So why do we now hear phrases from high-level sources that the Turkish army will go all the way 40 km into Syria to Al-Bab?

The veteran Hürriyet columnist Fikret Bila wrote yesterday that the aim of the operation is to recreate the pre-2011 demographics inside Syria. That seems more like a far-fetched political dream than an achievable military aim. At least 4.8 million people have left the country. Trying to relocate all the Arabs (Turkmens did not leave their land) back on Syrian territory is a pipedream. And trying to relocate the ones who are now living inside Turkey could face resistance from human rights groups, as the area is not completely safe (and probably never will be). So what does the real “2011” date mean anyway?

The Syrian civil war started as “civil disobedience” demonstrations in March 2011 and spread across the country in April and May of 2011. It looks like Turkey wants to go back to the pre-war situation in Syria, which may mean diplomatic reconciliation as well. But for the sake of argument let us limit ourselves simply to the demographic change. As former Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Basbug told Hurriyet over the weekend: “Jazeera and Kobane are around 50 percent Kurdish. Afrin, which is next to Hatay, is highly populated by Kurds, but if you take Manbij, Al-Bab and Jarablus altogether, then the ratio comes down and Kurds won’t be able to claim a majority. But there are at least a million Kurds living in Damascus and Aleppo and if they decide to move north they could change the demographics.”

The Turkish Armed Forces inside Syria are there for one aim. That aim has very little to do with ISIL. They are there to create a safe haven for Sunni Arabs to return to their land so that the Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led Kurds are not able to create a de facto state through land grabs and demographic movements. But let us not forget that if the Kurds have made a deal with the Russians, the Iranians and inevitably the al-Assad regime for their autonomous region, the Turkish army may really be in trouble. Forty kilometers inside Syria may be “nothing” for Turkish commanders, but it is wide open territory and there are at least six different groups fighting under the umbrella of FSA that are ready to fight each other.

Prof. Nihat Ali Özcan made this gloomy prediction in his column in Milliyet about the scope of the Euphrates Shield Operation: “From the facts we see on the field, and if we play it by the book, Turkey must be ready to put at least 35-40,000 boots on the ground for at least 10-15 years.” 

God knows, maybe there will eventually be an opportunity for Friday Prayers in Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque too.