Turkey talks of incursion into Syria but risks are high
Istanbul - Turkey is massing tanks and troops at the border with war-torn Syria amid talk of a possible military intervention but an incursion carries high risks for Ankara.
Turkish leaders are concerned about military gains by Syria’s Kurds, which Ankara suspects might herald the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Syria. Analysts say the real aim behind military preparations may be to warn both the Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s allies of the mounting dangers of the Syrian crisis.
The military build-up began after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on June 26th that his country would not allow “the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria”. After Erdogan’s speech, both pro- and anti-government media reported that Turkey was working on plans to send thousands of soldiers into Syria’s Jarabulus region to prevent Syrian Kurds from increasing their territory. The military began to send tanks to the border.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking in a July 2nd television interview, confirmed the government had put the military on alert but said no intervention was currently planned. “It’s correct that we have taken precautions to protect our border,” Davutoğlu told Kanal 7. “(But) no one should have the expectation that Turkey will enter Syria tomorrow or in the near term.”
While that statement sounded like a denial of reported plans for an incursion, the prime minister added that Turkey was ready send in the army if need be. “If anything occurred that were to threaten Turkish security, we wouldn’t wait for tomorrow, we would go right in,” Davutoğlu said. “But it’s wrong to expect that Turkey would undertake such a unilateral intervention in the immediate term if there is no such risk.”
Rumours that Turkey might intervene in Syria have been around since the conflict there began in March 2011. Even though Turkish demands for a no-fly zone over northern Syria and for the creation of safe havens for refugees inside Syria were ignored by the international community, the rejection has not triggered unilateral action by Ankara.
But with conditions in northern Syria worsening in Ankara’s view, that may change. Erdogan’s tough rhetoric, Davutoğlu’s ambiguity and the troops’ presence on the border are signs that developments in Syria concern Ankara.
The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), offshoots of the Turkish- Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), have scored several victories against the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria. Turkey is concerned that the PYD wants to link up Kurdish areas in north-eastern and north-western Syria and set up its own state.
A Turkish government official, briefing the media on condition of anonymity, said Syria’s territorial integrity was threatened by the PYD’s advances. “Of course the PYD is fighting ISIS, and so are we,” the official said. “But the PYD is trying to hold on to one part of Syria.”
A military operation by Turkey to block advances by the Kurds could draw the country into the Syrian conflict, analysts say. Risks for Turkey “boggle the imagination”, David Romano of Missouri State University in the United States wrote in a column for Rudaw, a news platform based in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. He warned that Turkish troops could come up against Kurdish militias, ISIS and Syrian government troops.
Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank agrees. Turkey could hope for short-term gains of an intervention, such as creating a base within Syria to boost support for rebels in their fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Cagaptay wrote. But the fallout, including tensions with Assad’s Russian supporters, could be immense, he added.
Turkey also risks tensions with its Western allies. According to Turkish media reports, US Vice-President Joe Biden recently had a telephone conversation with Erdogan regarding Syria. An intervention “would be very hard to justify on the grounds of international law on self-defence”, the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) said in a July 3rd analysis.
An incursion could provoke anger among Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. Dozens of people were killed in riots that broke out in Turkey in 2014 when the government refused to help Syrian Kurds in the city of Kobane during a siege by ISIS. The PKK, which fought Ankara for almost 30 years before starting peace talks in 2012, said Turkey would see a new “war” with the Kurdish rebels if the incursion went ahead.
As risks and uncertainties associated with a ground intervention are piling up, observers say Ankara’s rhetoric and actions on the border might be more about the political message being sent than about preparations for an incursion. Romano wrote he hoped Turkey’s approach amounted to “barking” rather than to “the bite of a catastrophic intervention into the Syrian nightmare”.
Turkish troop concentrations on the border could partly be aimed at persuading the PYD to act with restraint in northern Syria. In a statement quoted by Turkish media on July 2nd, the PYD denied its aim was to set up a Kurdish state in northern Syria.
EDAM concluded that Turkey was addressing its Western partners who have been reluctant to engage closely with the Syrian crisis, creating the impression that Ankara has to shoulder much of the fallout on its own. “Turkey wants to remind its partners that the evolution of the Syrian crisis is reaching a turning point for Turkey’s national interest,” the EDAM analysis said.