Why is Turkey shelling northern Syria?

Why is Turkey shelling northern Syria?

These days a lot of people, both in Turkey and the world, are asking: “Is Turkey really going to war in Syria this time?” The Turkish military has begun doing something it has never done before since the beginning of the Syrian civil war: Shelling strategic positions deep within Syrian territory. 

The target in this operation is clear: The Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), or the troops of the PYD, which Ankara sees as a mere extension of its main enemy at home, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Apparently, it is not an ineffective operation: On Feb. 14, the semi-official Anadolu Agency noted that “Turkish shelling has killed at least 29 terrorists belonging to the PYD.” More importantly, Turkish shelling seems to have halted the PYD advance north of Aleppo. 

This is crucial, because if the north of Aleppo falls to the PYD and its allies, (Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime), then Aleppo could easily fall too. That is the last thing Turkey wants to see, because then Turkey’s south will be sealed by the PYD-Russia-Assad coalition, in addition to ISIS.

Such tactical details are complicated, and they are constantly evolving, so let me stress the strategic issue here - or the strategic gap between Turkey and its Western allies such as the United States. For the latter, the most important matter in Syria now is the destruction of ISIS. Any actor that serves this cause is either enthusiastically supported (as in the case of the PYD), or they are tolerated (as in the case of Russia and the al-Assad regime.) 

For Turkey, however, things are more complicated. First of all, Turkey agrees with the West (and basically everybody else) that ISIS should be destroyed. In other words, the common propaganda about an alleged ISIS-Ankara alliance is just nonsense. But — and it is a big but — Turkey has other priorities as well. One of them is to not allow the al-Assad regime to take back the Sunni-majority areas of Syria, which may easily lead to gross atrocities against Sunnis, who may try to escape to Turkey, creating a much a bigger refugee crisis. 

The second priority for Turkey is to not allow the PYD to dominate northern Syria. This is not because Ankara is obsessively anti-Kurdish, as some people seem to think, assuming that the PYD stands for “Kurds.” Ankara’s good relations, if not alliance, with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) disproves that narrative. The problem is that the PYD is not just any Kurdish party – it is an extension of the PKK, which has been Turkey’s bête noir since the early 1980s.

Of course it would be much nicer if Turkey’s “peace process” with the PKK had worked. In that case, Ankara could have emerged as a patron of the PYD, rather than its enemy. But for complicated reasons, the peace process did not work. So, it is normal for Ankara today to see the emergence of a “PKK-istan” in northern Syria as a threat to itself. Western capitals may not share the same threat perception but they need to understand it. 

Finally, Ankara is trying to keep the “Syrian opposition” alive, despite Washington’s pusillanimity in supporting it. This opposition neither includes nor equals ISIS, as the pro-Assad pro-Russian narrative suggests. It of course includes various Islamist brigades, who are not your ideal liberal democrats but who are still legitimate rebels against the bloody tyranny of al-Assad (and important bulwarks against ISIS). 

So, will Turkey go to war, in terms of a ground operation, to support these rebels against the PYD-Russia-Assad alliance? It would not be an unjustified thing to do, but it would be a very dangerous, probably even disastrous, adventure. And I bet Ankara knows that.