Risks at home and abroad spring from Turkey's Syria offensive

What began as an attempt to seek a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2013 has morphed into an open-ended invasion with no clear metric for a successful end. With the deployment of Turkish Armed Forces (TAK) into north-eastern Syria, Operation Peace Spring marks a new phase in the eight-year Syrian conflict. Despite its suddenness, it has been long coming.

Erdogan’s decision will bring opportunities to strengthen its partnership with Russia but leave alliances with the United States and European Union in utter limbo.

At the launch of operations, direct threats to commercial interests in neighbouring countries are few. But risks change and develop over time – and this will not be a short operation. Turkey’s effective control of a swathe of Syrian territory will prompt more displacement, violence and instability – not just in Syria, but further afield – that will have unforeseen consequences.

Cynical politics damages key partnerships

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been clear since the launch of Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 that he would not countenance permanent Kurdish control of any Syrian territory. The offensive has strategic priorities: to protect Turkey against its vulnerable southern flank and to mitigate domestic challenges by creating a space for the forced return of Syrian refugees to Syria.

The migrant crisis of 2015 reshaped European Union attitudes to its periphery but did not result in action. Erdogan – mindful that the EU will not properly engage with the root of the issue: the Syrian conflict – has threatened to weaponise the refugee crisis. It accelerated political polarisation and the rise of populist political parties in Europe, reshaping the political dynamics of several EU member states. Operation Peace Spring is justified as an answer to a problem the EU refuses to help Turkey solve.

Concerning potential for multiple resurgent terrorist threats

But this will reignite security threats at home and in north eastern Syria. Targeting the YPG abroad will prompt a response from the PKK at home; although its capabilities are significantly weakened, the prospect of another domestic terror campaign akin to 2015-2017 looms large with risks to the Turkey – Iraq pipeline and major urban centres in Turkey. The destruction of the first prolonged and partly successful PKK/PYD state-building experiment will not go unpunished.

In the south-east, Islamic State exploited the resulting distraction from the confirmation of the offensive on 9 October 2019, targeting Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – of which the YPG forms the majority. The vehicle-borne IED sets the tone for future engagement: IS will not hesitate to take the opportunity to inflict further casualties on SDF, YPG or TAK forces.

A confused policy leaves US influence wanting

The House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry, the 2020 election race and myriad White House scandals will keep President Donald Trump and Congress distracted for the foreseeable future. Trust in policy design-making in Washington DC is in retreat globally. With multiple contradictory policies being pursued against Turkey relating to the F-35 programme and now the offensive, Erdogan will have free reign to proceed without pause.

Trump claims his aims to vanquish Islamic State and bring home the troops are now met. His tacit approval of the offensive reveals little concern over the reaction of the political establishment. He is sympathetic to the domestic terror threat in Turkey and possesses a shared perspective with a fellow strong-man politician.

Negative diplomatic exchanges based on media coverage between Turkey and allies January 2015 - October 2019

No plans for Russian roulette

Despite Russia’s engagement being far longer and incurring greater physical costs than initially planned, military support for the Syrian government has been an overwhelming success from Moscow’s perspective. Syria has served as both a training ground and a showroom for its military industrial complex, giving Russian troops – particularly the air force – vital combat experience while demonstrating the effectiveness of Russian weapon systems to prospective foreign buyers. The presence of a semi-permanent Russian garrison at Khmeimim has given Russia a physical foothold in the region. Alongside increased arms sales, this has increased Russia’s regional influence and strengthened commercial ties with Iraq, Egypt and Iran.

Putting boots on the ground to defend Syrian interests is not on the agenda. As Russian military operations have gradually wound down, Bashar al-Assad is facing a future of declining leverage in his relationship with Vladimir Putin. The role of watchful observer will allow Russia to react opportunistically to preserve its assets in Syria, and the potentially more valuable bilateral relationship with Turkey.

No end in sight

Operation Peace Spring will face challenges but will not be halted by pressure from the international community. Sanctions from the European Union and United States are possible, but not inevitable. Turkey’s standing in NATO is even weaker but will not break completely. The utility of sanctions as a tool of statecraft has begun to show its limits. The mechanisms to hold Turkey accountable are few, and the risks of ongoing conflict many.

Russia’s keenest interest will be in mediating talks between Turkey and the YPG. This will reinforce its position as the power broker in the region rather than just a spoiler of US ambitions – while also shining a floodlight on the limits of US power there. President Trump has expressed the same desire, but it is not clear the State Department and foreign policy community is as supportive.

President Erdogan has not laid out how Syrian territory corralled for Turkey’s benefit could be governed – let alone posited an exit strategy. The reward of domestic security seems elusive in the face of great uncertainty.

Niamh McBurney

Head of MENA, Risk Insight