Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month announced an upcoming military operation in Syria, which followed heightened rhetoric against Finland and Sweden’s efforts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Similar to autumn 2021, Erdoğan claims the offensive will establish a 30-kilometre “Safe Zone” for Syrian refugee resettlement and ward off Kurdish border threats. Such statements are significant for the de facto stalemate in the Syrian war, and while Ankara did not act on its previous threats, this round could prove different given shifting dynamics on the ground – particularly related to Russia.
A new offensive in Syria cannot be separated from Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession. Ankara opposes the countries’ applications due to their alleged support for Kurdish groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the PKK’s Syrian offshoot – and Gülen movement.
Ankara is using NATO expansion and Ukraine to gain concessions on national security issues while understanding it cannot block expansion for long without suffering backlash from NATO members. In this context, Erdoğan probably wants to ease sanctions on its growing defence industry and drone program, some of which were sanctioned following its 2019 incursion into Syria. Conversely, Turkey could hope Washington will prioritise NATO and Ukraine over a potentially expendable patch of land in northern Syria. Either option is a win for Ankara.
The upcoming Madrid NATO summit marks a crucial moment. Erdoğan wants meetings with world leaders and corresponding photo-ops to bolster his image at home. It would not be surprising for Ankara to offer an ultimatum in Spain – either defence sanctions relief or an offensive in Syria for NATO accession – although Turkish officials say Madrid is not a deadline.
Focus on Madrid suggests domestic considerations also drive the Turkish position. Given Erdoğan’s dwindling support due to a severe currency crisis, alongside Turkish society’s widespread disdain for Syrian refugees, even rhetorical calls for operations advancing refugee deportations can boost the Justice and Development Party (AKP) coalition ahead of 2023 elections. With approximately 70 per cent inflation and AKP’s support falling to 45 per cent against the opposition’s 55 per cent, Erdoğan may take increasingly drastic measures to regain nationalist support haemorrhaging to the left-leaning Kemalist (CHP) and nationalist Good (IYI) parties.
Turkey continues to signal a Syria operation against this backdrop. Erdogan’s most substantial threat came in a 1 June speech to AKP MPs, homing in on the Kurdish-controlled towns of Tel Rifaat and Manbij.
Targeting these areas carries substantial risks. In response, local Kurdish groups in Tel Rifaat have organised with Iranian, Russian, and pro-government forces. For its part, Moscow has publicly and privately expressed discomfort over a Turkish advance multiple times and increased patrols in these areas. To date, Turkey has not substantially built up its forces along the border, although the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) opposition militias could lead an assault.
Ankara’s goal of repatriating one million Syrian refugees to “Safe Zones” in northern Syria will perpetuate this crisis and remains ambiguous.
Still, many dynamics that hindered Erdoğan’s offensive last year still exist, particularly regarding the Russian and US presence in the northwest and northeast of Syria, respectively. Given geopolitical interests and their patronage of stakeholders in these areas, neither state appears keen on ceding ground to Ankara.
Indeed, Washington rejects any assault given its support for the Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). US forces stationed east of the Euphrates River to fight the Islamic State also block an offensive, which explains Erdoğan’s focus on Manbij and Tel Rifaat.
However, Moscow is disinclined to support an offensive or land-swap deal that previously undergirded Turkish offensives west of the Euphrates. Former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement Jim Jeffrey has indicated this on numerous occasions based on previous diplomatic efforts.
This position probably hardened given Turkey’s stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not limited to Erdoğan’s decision to invoke the Montreux Convention – closing the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits – and close its skies to Russian-Syria flights. That said, Russia could be interested in Ankara’s continued blocking of Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession in exchange for some land.
Regardless, immediate consequences abound should an attack occur. The region has not recovered from the 2021 drought – the worst in 70 years – or a substantial deterioration in living standards and international aid. Furthermore, both Manbij and Tel Rifaat, home to over 550,000 people, hold a significant number of internally displaced people within an area already hosting roughly 2.8 million.
Ankara’s goal of repatriating one million Syrian refugees to “Safe Zones” in northern Syria will perpetuate this crisis and remains ambiguous. Between 2016 and 2021, only around 110,000 Syrians returned from Turkey, representing less than three per cent of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees today. The areas from previous incursions continue to suffer from institutional corruption and bleak economic outlooks, resulting in riots in al-Bab, making voluntary returns unlikely.
Politically, Turkish advancements will probably harden Syria’s de facto partition as no stakeholders are prepared to cede ground for a political agreement. A larger Turkish presence in Syria will deepen disagreements between these actors at the expense of peace and stability.
Regarding security, an offensive will foster increased violent reactions from the YPG, who intend to induce a state of chaos in Turkish-held areas to prevent resettlement and ethnic cleansing. This continues a cycle of violence that destabilises the entirety of northern Syria – opening the door for extremist groups such as Islamic State to flourish at the expense of the average Syrian.