Will Turkey really occupy northern Syria now?

Will Turkey really occupy northern Syria now?

One thing President Tayyip Erdoğan is good at is forcefully declaring what he will “not allow” – either in Turkey or its region. He did the same thing a couple of days ago regarding Syria. He vowed: “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.”

In this particular speech, Erdoğan did not specify who would establish those states within Syria, but many perceived it as “the Kurds.” More precisely, it was the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the armed Syrian Kurdish party that is in line with Turkey’s own “terrorist” group, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But Erdoğan had, and still has, a problem: the same PYD is seen in the West as a key ally against another party that seeks the “establishment of a state” in Turkey’s south, which is none other than the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

Does this mean that Erdoğan’s Turkey is on the same side with ISIL against the Syrian Kurds? There are many who readily say “yes” to this question these days, but I think they are wrong. They are also dead wrong to condemn Turkey as a “terrorist” state, assuming that it supports ISIL.

Because, no, Turkey does not support ISIL, and there is no evidence to believe so. The parties that Ankara does clearly support in the Syrian war are the relatively more “moderate” Islamist rebels, who have lately united under the umbrella, “The Army of Conquest.” These groups are not ISIL, they are rather at war with ISIL, along with the Bashar al-Assad regime. The controversial trucks that were operated by the Turkish intelligence and that apparently carried weapons to Syria were most probably going to these rebels, and not ISIL, despite the heated claims by Turkish opposition. (Take a note: In Turkey, counter-factual propaganda comes both from the government and its enemies.)

Yet still, there is a big gap between the positions of Ankara and the West vis-à-vis Syria. For the latter, the only problem now is ISIL. For Ankara, it is the al-Assad regime, the PYD and ISIL. (And probably in that order.) The reason for the concern with the PYD is Ankara’s decades-old quintessential fear: A Kurdistan on the other side of the border could trigger a Kurdistan on this side of the border. 

In fact, it was Erdoğan and his AKP who had overcome this Kurdistan-o-phobia in Iraq, by making friends with the KRG led by Masoud Barzani. But in Syria, the PYD is a left-wing, secular and pro-PKK movement; in other words everything that the government despises now with regards to Turkey’s own political scene. 

Anyway, let’s come back to the real question: Will Turkey really occupy northern Syria now? Here is my simple answer: No. As the recent past proves, Ankara barks more than it bites. The “invasion plans” published in the pro-government media with fanfare are not realistic, and the Turkish military is never that adventurous. I think all this talk is more of a bluff rather than a real plan to occupy large swaths of northern Syria, and to get into war both against ISIL and the PYD, if not perhaps even the regime.

But there is a real burning issue for Turkey, and Ankara can really do something militarily about it: the refugees. There are already 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey (who are well taken care of), and more are coming. Ankara is keen to establish “safe havens” in Syria, to protect civilians, as Erdoğan’s spokesman İbrahim Kalın explained yesterday. Turkey can take limited military action to establish such safe heavens, but even that would only happen with international backing.