Will the Turkish army be deployed in Syria?

Will the Turkish army be deployed in Syria?

Unless Turkey is directly attacked by Syrian forces, it is not very likely that the Turkish army will be deployed in Syria.

I’m not talking about a few shells falling on the Turkish side of the border or shots fired at Turkish patrols or border stations, or perhaps even the incidental shooting down of planes; after all, there are already set and announced rules of engagement for such incursions. The Turkish military responds to such incidents immediately, as in the cases of the last few days. The military has been careful to make the point that all artillery fired on positions across the Turkish border of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been responses to PYD incursions. But there has been no step back from Ankara on opening “reciprocal” fire on Syrian or PYD positions, despite calls from Russia, the EU, and especially the U.S., which remains Turkey’s major military ally. In fact, the Turkish Foreign Ministry confirmed another round of firing yesterday on Feb. 15. The ministry also said it was “shocked” by the U.S. reaction to Turkey’s firing on the PYD. The PYD is the Syrian sister of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is currently fighting against the Turkish government and which is also on the U.S.’s official list of terrorist organizations.

During a visit to Ukraine (with a most interesting timing when the tension with Russia is rising), Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on Feb. 15 that Turkey would continue its operations until the YPG withdrew from the strategic town of Azaz and moved away from the corridor where assistance is conveyed by a number of countries to Syrian opposition forces in and around Aleppo via Turkey. “The YPG is an instrument of Russia in Syria,” Davutoğlu said, accusing Russia of using a hypothetical “Third World War” as a threat to “dictate its policies” on Syria.  

Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement on Feb. 15, expressing concern over “Turkish aggression on Syria.” The head of the Russian parliament’s International Relations Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, said on the same day that if Turkish military enters Syria it would find “Iran and even worse, Russia” against it. Kosachev added that in this event Turkey would not have the backing of the West, meaning the Western alliance of NATO.

It would be absurd to think that the Turkish government is not aware that a unilateral military move into Syria may not receive NATO backing. The Turkish government is also aware that since the downing of the Russian jet last November, any Turkish flight in Syrian air space will be intercepted by the Russians and it would be naive to plan any military operation without air support. 

Speculation over a Saudi land operation, joined by Turkey, has been denied by the Saudis, who said there would not be a unilateral Saudi operation unless there was one led by the U.S. By the way, it has also recently been announced that Saudi jets will join the raids against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Turkey’s İncirlik air base, alongside other members of the anti-ISIL coalition.
On Feb. 14, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said after a “misunderstood” statement that there was currently no plan for any army operation into Syria, let alone with the Saudis.

So what is all this tension about? The main reason is that Turkey does not want the PYD (or the PKK, as seen from Ankara) to exploit the opportunity of fighting ISIL in order to capture a strip along the Turkish border where it could claim an autonomous Kurdish state. Davutoğlu says Turkey does not want the PYD to sit around the table while deciding the future of Syria as a party in the opposition forces; instead it can be on the side of the al-Assad regime.

Ankara wants to make its case clearly to both the U.S. and Russia that trying to by-pass Turkey, which has a 910 km border with Syria, could be very difficult. Perhaps Turkey cannot force through its own plan, but it can spoil any plans formed without Turkish contribution.

Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the current tension will not evolve into something worse. After all, many wars in the past have been triggered by apparently irrelevant incidents in times of extreme tension.