Recent events in northern Syria have many expecting a renewed Turkish offensive and surge in violence as Turkey bolsters its military capabilities along frontlines with its Kurdish rivals.
If such an escalation occurs, it could have a profound impact on the makeup of Syria’s fractured northern governorates and substantial implications for a post-war Syria.
That said, given Turkey’s awkward position between the United States and Russia and limited capabilities in influencing both states’ stances on Syria, the scale of any offensive remains questionable – and potentially negligible – if it does occur in the near-term.
Increased violence in the north
Violence in areas under Turkish or Turkish-backed militia control in northern Syria has been consistent for quite some time, including since Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, which the Turks conducted to widen a buffer zone for the return of Syrian refugees and to diminish the power of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG).
Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a bloody insurgency with Turkey for decades from within the country and across the border in Syria and Turkey.
"Recent events in northern Syria have many expecting a renewed Turkish offensive and surge in violence as Turkey bolsters its military capabilities along frontlines with its Kurdish rivals"
This has culminated in significant losses for Turkey. Many Turks have died in Syria because of what can be largely attributed to violent attacks by the YPG. Such attacks have included car bombs and surface-to-surface missiles, including the strike on 10 October in Azaz that killed two Turkish police officers. This attack produced the current risk of escalation today, with Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan vowing vengeance.
In response, Ankara has worked to reposition its military assets across the north, including the Turkish Armed Forces and the various militias constituting the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which it backs in northwest Syria (NWS).
Currently, Turkey appears to be weighing its options for an offensive, focused on Tel Rifaat and Manbij west of the Euphrates River and Ain Issa and Tel Tamr, which are east of the Euphrates. Additionally, rumours of an attack on the iconic city of Kobane have emerged.
Each of these locations holds significance for the Kurds, who would prefer not to lose additional territory. The YPG has worked to bolster its defences in preparation for an attack, instituting a sweeping conscription program across its areas of control. This is likely a result of prior Turkish offensives in 2016 (Operation Euphrates Shield) and 2018 (Operation Olive Branch), alongside the aforementioned 2019 operation.
Indeed, such measures by the Kurds are integral to understanding the northern context, alongside diplomatic wrangling surrounding territorial control and pressuring the Kurds towards Damascus.
Just as Operation Peace Spring in 2019 pushed the Kurds to cooperate with the Assad regime and Russia, it seems that a similar situation is currently developing, with Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Aldar Khalil openly calling for engagement with the Syrian regime in response to a potential attack.
Not so fast, Ankara
Whether or not such outreach succeeds in preventing a Turkish offensive remains to be seen, especially given the importance of the United States and Russia to the context. Importantly, Washington and Moscow hold the key to any major decisions in Syria, including the north. For any offensive to occur, either one or both states must approve, depending on the territory of question.
Washington is almost certain to reject any proposed military offensive into Kurdish-held lands as it effectively sponsors the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and YPG. Given the US military presence east of the Euphrates, US support for the Kurds, and the designation of these areas as part of the area included in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS), this likely cuts off any potential attack on Ain Issa and Tel Tamr, barring any unforeseen and drastic change in events.
Additionally, the Biden administration is unlikely to allow the conquest of Kobane given its symbolic significance to the fight against IS and the major battle fought there.
Additionally, a recent meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Rome Summit between President Biden and Erdogan does not seem to have resulted in approval for an attack. The substance of the conversation between the two leaders seems to have been left intentionally vague to the public, but almost certainly covered Syria and an upcoming vote in the US Congress regarding F-16 sales to Turkey.
The latter point could be connected to Syria as Ankara needs the deal to revitalise its air force and a political win at home – which a renewed offensive in an unpopular war is not certain to achieve. The question is if a minor offensive in northern Syria is worth the risk, which seems unlikely.
This is supported by some who worked close to the issue in the past, such as former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, who argues “President Biden warned Erdoğan against any operation in north-eastern Syria" following the G20 Summit.
This leaves Erdogan with one option – Russia. The Turkish president met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 29 September as tensions in NWS increased in prior months. The results of this meeting have also been vague, although it probably focused on Syria and the issue of potential land swaps in NWS and northeast Syria (NES) given increased military operations around Idlib before the summit.
"Given Turkey's awkward position between the United States and Russia, and limited capabilities in influencing their stances on Syria, the scale of any offensive remains questionable – and potentially negligible – if it does occur in the near-term"
Ankara and Moscow have agreed to previous land swaps, including during the 2018 Afrin offensive and in May 2019, making this route more likely to succeed than via Washington.
That said, any effort to bring Moscow onboard faces stiff resistance. While Kurdish lands controlled by the YPG west of the Euphrates could be traded by the Russians in exchange for strategically important parts of Idlib, Russia’s interest in such a deal is hardly guaranteed.
Turkey’s interest in Tel Rifaat, where a significant number of attacks on Turkish-held lands originate, is a suburb of Aleppo and buffer between Turkish-backed rebels and regime forces. Manbij is similar, although it is much farther from Aleppo.
This begs the question – are the Russians willing to give up Aleppo suburbs to Syrian opposition forces instead of allowing them to continue to struggle against their fellow Syrian Kurds?
Such an outcome is unlikely. Moscow probably prefers a scenario in which the Syrian opposition remains fragmented and distracted by internal fights between Arabs and Kurds. Divisions among these groups, especially in NWS, allow Russia to continue chipping away at rebel positions alongside the Syrian Army and Iranian militias.
Assad has already alluded to such a strategy following his presidential election victory in May 2021, claiming that he was “certain that with this fighting spirit we will be able to defeat all our enemies no matter how many the battles are or how hard the road is.” This has been matched by gradually increased shelling in Idlib.
Domestic constraints in Turkey
Turkey’s domestic issues also probably play a role. Although the Turkish Parliament recently re-authorised the military mission in Syria for two years – an unprecedented extension given this is usually done on an annual basis – without the Republican People’s Party (CHP) raises concerns for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their political hopes for the future. The CHP has supported the war for years and is shifting its current stance because of disdain within Turkey for operations in Syria.
This is coupled with growing animosity for Syrian refugees within Turkey, stemming in no small part from the economic crisis that has plagued Turkey for years. Many Turks blame Syrians for their plight and support mass deportation policies – a stance the CHP and conservative parties like the right-wing Good Party (IYI) have openly incorporated into their platforms, alongside blunt racism and misinformation perpetuated by their politicians.
The combination of political opposition to the war, Turkish deaths, and economic problems have led to a significant loss of support for Erdogan and the AKP. To date, Erdogan holds a 39 percent approval rating, which is a drastic drop from 68 percent in 2016.
AKP and their coalition partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, have an approval rating of just under 40 percent. Erdogan is certainly aware of such domestic trends, recognising that Syria’s continued instability and his efforts to solve the Kurdish question are harming his re-election chances in 2023.
"The combination of political opposition to the war, Turkish deaths, and economic problems have led to a significant loss of support for Erdogan and the AKP"
Continuing the status quo
This is hardly lost on world leaders, including Putin, who is needed to approve any land swap deal in NWS and could benefit from increased pressure on Turkey to take a bad deal in the future. “In my conversations with the Russians… they do not want more Turkish encroachment on Syrian territory, and I know Assad is also ferociously against it,” said Jeffrey to Al Jazeera on 5 November.
This would explain the delay in what appeared to be a guaranteed operation weeks ago according to many experts.Al-Monitor’s 9 November interview with SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazlum Kobane only strengthens the concept that an offensive is not imminent, claiming “the United States [and Russia] [have] given us such assurances” regarding their rejection of any new Turkish offensive.
Thus, given Russian scepticism of additional land swaps, US support for the Kurds, and deep domestic issues inside of Turkey stemming from the Syrian war, it seems unlikely that any major Turkish offensive will occur in the near-term.
For now, Turkey remains stuck in the middle of a conflict with no clear exit strategy, two powerful nations with more power, and growing resentment at home.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.
Follow him on Twitter: @langloisajl