What is the Turkish army doing in Syria?
This week, Ankara launched the largest Turkish military incursion into Syria since the beginning of the latter’s bloody civil war. Some 300 Turkish troops crossed the border, along with more than 1,000 Free Syrian Army fighters, all supported by Turkish tanks and canons. The aim of the operation, named Euphrates Shield, was to secure Jarablus, a northwestern Syrian city just across the border. Many people are wondering why exactly Turkey is doing this now and what it aims to achieve.
First of all, let me note that this military operation comes as an assertion of Turkish military might. We suffered a failed coup attempt just seven weeks ago, and since then the Turkish military has been in turmoil. Almost half of all Turkey’s generals are currently under arrest, along with thousands of officers and troops. This, naturally, has raised the question of whether Turkey’s military has the capability to protect the country’s borders, let alone engage in a cross-border mission. With the operation, Ankara implicitly gave a response to the question, essentially saying “No worries, we’re just fine.”
Some even say that the failed coup, and the following purge in the military, has allowed Ankara to take this step. The logic is that before the purge, Turkish authorities were wary of “traitors” in the army, and thus were unsure about taking risks. I can neither confirm nor deny that, as it may well be fact or propaganda. But it seems fair to say that the government trusts its military more now than it did before.
On the other hand, the real reason why operation Euphrates Shield came now rather than before seems to be facts on the ground — and in the region. Turkey recently restored its relations with Russia, which had been in a dangerous low for months. If Ankara had launched this operation during its mini cold war with Moscow, in other words, it could have faced a military response from Russia. It is also crucial that Turkey secured not just an agreement but also cooperation with the United States for this surgical operation in Syria.
Why did the U.S. support Turkey? It did so because the main target of the operation is to cleanse ISIS from Jarablus. This will destroy ISIS’s last presence adjacent to the Turkish border, which is imperative given the repeated ISIS attacks inside Turkey, including the recent massacre of innocents in Gaziantep. The operation also shows that Turkey is not in fact “supporting” ISIS, as some in the West choose to believe. Rather, it is actively fighting against it, despite the fact that it took a long time for Ankara to wake up to this particular threat.
Meanwhile, it is no secret that Ankara has a second objective: To make sure that the vacuum left by ISIS will not be filled by the forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish party closely affiliated with Turkey’s quintessential terrorist enemy: The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This objective is often wrongly understood as being part of Turkey’s concern with “the Kurds” on the other side of its border. This is wrong, because Ankara has no problem with Iraqi Kurdistan, with which it has good relations.
The problem in Syria is not that the PYD, which is now seen as Washington’s best ally on the ground against ISIS, is Kurdish. The problem is that it is just the Syrian version of a specific Kurdish organization, the PKK, which is attacking Turkish soldiers and bombing Turkish targets almost every day. Ankara is worried not about a Syrian Kurdistan, in other words, but a Syrian PKK-istan. Nobody can say this is a baseless concern.