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The Turkish Invasion of Northeast Syria

While a determined Western-led effort to halt the Turkish invasion could still prevent Russian, Iranian and IS gains, time is growing short.

Operation ‘Spring of Peace,’ the somewhat Orwellian title given to the current Turkish incursion into northern Syria, is now entering its second week. Around 100,000 people, mainly Kurds, have left their homes in the Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain areas (35,000 from Tel Abyad area, and 65,000 from Ras al-Ain, according to UN figures). The offensive so far has consisted mainly of shelling and aerial bombing of Kurdish areas close to the border by the Turkish military. Over the weekend, a position at Mishtanur Hill adjoining Kobani city manned by remaining US forces came under fire from the Turkish military, since the Turks targeted Kurdish fighters operating close by. No US soldiers were wounded in the incident, according to a statement released by the US military. Kurdish spokesmen accused the Turks of deliberately targeting the US position, in an effort to hasten the exit of US troops from the area, so a Turkish ground invasion could begin in earnest. The Turkish military denied these accusations.

As of the time of writing, a major ground push by Turkish forces has yet to begin. The Turks have so far captured only a handful of villages close to the border (the number currently claimed by Turkey is 14). The main area of ground fighting at the present time is in the area between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-ain. The Turkish Defense Ministry acknowledges that four Turkish soldiers have died in the operation so far.  The number of fatalities among the Sunni Arab irregular fighters who are working with Turkey in the framework of the ‘Syrian National Army’ is not known. Turkey claims to have killed 342 fighters of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Kurds dismiss this and acknowledge the deaths of 22 of their fighters.

The international response to the Turkish operation has so far been muted and lacking in focus. US officials are denying that President Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from the border areas offered a ‘green light’ to the Turkish operation. On the contrary, US officials have spoken out strongly against the operation. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Friday, according to Reuters, that “We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation.” The US has threatened renewed sanctions against Turkey, if Ankara crosses an undefined red line in its incursion. French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the Turks to halt the operation.  A UN Security Council meeting failed to issue a clear condemnation of the invasion or call for it to stop.

Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan, meanwhile, has dismissed calls for the halting of the operation, declaring that the invasion “will not stop…no matter what anyone says.”

What may happen next?

The Turkish intention, as outlined by President Erdogan in his speech to the UN General Assembly, is to carve out a 30 km deep ‘safe zone’ (i.e., zone of Turkish control) along the length of the Syrian-Turkish border, between Tel Abyad and Derik (al-Malikiyah). The Turks then intend to re-settle two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently resident in Turkey in this area. The current mainly Kurdish population in this area is around one million people. (100,000 of whom have already left their homes, fleeing the Turkish bombardment).

Should this goal be achieved, it would give Turkey control of the entirety of the 900 km. Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara already secured control of the border further west in the earlier operations ‘Euphrates Shield’ in 2016, and ‘Olive Branch’ in early 2018. The latter operation, in which the Kurdish Afrin Canton was destroyed and 200,000 Kurds displaced may well be a blueprint in miniature for what is now being attempted east of the Euphrates River.

If a Turkish ground invasion reaches a depth of 30 km., this will take in the main Kurdish population areas of northern Syria (Ras al-Ain, Kobani, Amuda, Darbasiya, Qamishli, Derik) and is likely to trigger the exodus of up to one million of the local inhabitants. They may seek refuge further south or flee to the Kurdish Regional Government to the east, in northern Iraq.

If this is achieved, it will represent a triumph for Erdogan, and may serve to reverse the recent setbacks that his party has suffered in Turkish internal elections.  It would essentially reverse the gains made by the Syrian Kurds over the last six years, triggering the eclipse of their Autonomous Administration in northern Syria.

Such an achievement would be perceived in the region as a major humiliation for the United States, whose guarantees and protests would have been shown to be worthless.

It would constitute an opportunity for Russia, which would then presumably seek to mediate between Iran, Turkey and the Assad regime, which would remain as the only interests of consequence inside Syria. Russia has cordial relations with all three of these powers, so the departure of the Americans and the destruction of the current Kurdish de facto powers would offer an advantage for Moscow and could pave the way for a Russian brokered ‘solution’ to the Syrian war. The net effect would be the entrenchment of Russian, Turkish and Iranian power over the remains of Syria, with the Assad regime remaining as the nominal government of the area.

The destruction of the current administration in northern Syria is likely to benefit the Iran-led axis also. Attacks have already taken place by the regime and Iran-aligned militias against SDF positions east of the Euphrates on Friday. Deir e Zur and the lower Euphrates River Valley constitute an oil and gas rich territory. (Eighty percent of Syria’s oil and gas capacity is in this area). Should this area fall to the regime and Iran, it would massively widen the current narrow and vulnerable corridor (at Albu Kamal) which Iran currently holds on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The area of de facto Iranian control would then constitute the greater part of the Syrian-Iraqi border. This would not be a problem for Turkey, which has no ambitions in this area. But it would complicate Israel’s position versus the Iranians and their allies considerably.

Lastly, there are already signs of the Islamic State organization using the Turkish invasion as a stage on which to launch a revival. Five IS prisoners escaped from an SDF-maintained facility in Qamishli on Friday. Operations against IS sleeper cells in the Deir e Zur area have ceased as SDF fighters head north to face the expected Turkish ground invasion. An attempt to escape from the Al-Hawl camp, where 70,000 IS members and their families are currently held, was foiled by the SDF. Three people died in an IS-claimed car bomb attack in Qamishli on Friday.

The Turkish-supported Syrian National Army itself consists largely of Sunni Islamist fighters. (Footage has emerged of fighters from this group repeating IS slogans). Thus, the result of the Turkish invasion acquiring the dimensions Ankara itself intends, is likely to be the revival and re-emergence of Islamic State as an additional force east of the Euphrates, as well as net gains for Russia, Iran and Assad.

These scenarios are plausible. While a determined Western-led effort to halt the Turkish invasion could still prevent Russian, Iranian, and IS gains, time is growing short.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: Orhan Erkılıç [Public domain]

Picture of ד"ר יונתן ספייר

ד"ר יונתן ספייר

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is one of the very few Western/Israeli experts to have traveled extensively in Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish areas during the recent years of conflict. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge, December 2017), and The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010). He is a regular contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review, has published in leading journals and media outlets including Middle East Quarterly, Times (of London), Foreign Policy, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Haaretz, Atlantic, Australian, National Post, Globe and Mail, Jerusalem Report, Jerusalem Post and others; and has appeared on CNN, al-Jazeera, Fox, BBC, Sky, and other outlets. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and an MA in Middle East politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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