Is Turkey gearing up to attack the Syrian Kurds again?

Amidst the ongoing transition disarray in the United States, Turkey might calculate that the next few weeks are an opportune moment for it to once again strike the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.

In late October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to begin another military operation against the SDF.

“We see that the terrorist organisation’s presence and the threats against our country continue to increase in areas not under our control across our Syrian border, despite all the promises given to us,” he said, clearly referring to the SDF. 

“Unless the promises given to us are delivered, and all the terrorists there are driven out of the line we have determined, I would like to reiterate that we have legitimate cause to take action whenever we deem necessary.” 

“Turkey has sufficient power to clear, if need be, all terrorist organisations from Syria.” 

In early October, Turkey’s parliament approved a bill that extends the mandate for the country’s cross-border campaigns in both Syria and Iraq until Oct. 30, 2021. 

In October 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew U.S. troops from the Syrian border following a phone call with Erdoğan. Mere days later, Turkey launched operation Operation Peace Spring against the SDF, displacing thousands of civilians. By the time Russia brokered a ceasefire later that month, Turkey and its Syrian militia proxies had captured the town of Tal Abyad along with a large swath of land between the two main Syrian Kurdish regions of Kobane and Jazira that it still occupies to the present day. 

Locals in northeast Syria recently expressed fears that ongoing Turkish cross-border bombings could indicate that Ankara might launch another offensive in the near future. Turkey and its militia proxies have carried out at least 800 ceasefire violations since last year, 138 of which have been in the town of Tel Tamer alone. 

With Trump leaving office, analysts told Ahval News that Turkey might exploit the transition period in Washington, which has been complicated by Trump’s unwillingness to cooperate with the incoming Biden administration, to launch another operation against the SDF. 

“Turkey may well try to exploit U.S. weakness during this awkward transition period,” said Professor Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert and head of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. 

“President Trump has made it clear that he wants to draw down U.S. troop presence in the region and seeks to end the ‘forever wars,’” he said. 

“President Biden’s foreign policy team is not firmly in place yet, but he has surrounded himself with liberal hawks who insist that the U.S. must retain its presence in Syria to force a ‘political solution’ to Syria and help the Kurds.” 

In addition to this, President-elect Joe Biden has had disapproving things to say about his Turkish counterpart and Turkey’s foreign policy. 

“For this reason, Turkish policymakers may believe that offence is the best defence,” Landis said. 

During the transition period, Turkey could “press its advantage” while the outgoing administration is preoccupied with reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

“It also might make the incoming policymakers around Biden reassess their commitment to the Kurds of Syria and the SDF,” Landis said. “They may not want to get dragged into a fight with Turkey over northeast Syria.” 

Süleyman Özeren, a Turkey expert at George Mason University, foresees two very different paths that Erdoğan could choose to take in the next couple of weeks. 

For one, Erdoğan might look at the economic crisis and growing domestic political opposition in Turkey today and decide to surprise everyone by offering a new peace deal to the Kurds.

Or, he could “take the extra mile” and launch another military operation in northeast Syria to “raise the bar” for negotiations with the Biden administration while simultaneously consolidating popular support at home. 

“It is highly likely that he would choose the latter,” Özeren said.

As with all of its cross-border operations into Syria since August 2016, Turkey will need a green light from Russia. This is because Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, controls large parts of Syria’s airspace and has had a troop presence in Syria’s northeast since the October 2019 U.S. drawdown.

Özeren anticipates that Moscow will greenlight any future operation as it has in the past. 

“Biden’s presidency would be more complex for both Russia and Turkey, so it could be plausible that the Russians might give that green light to create a mess for the upcoming Biden administration,” he said.

If Turkey does attack northeast Syria again, the question then arises of which areas it will attack and occupy. The last operation saw it occupy almost one-third of the SDF-controlled region extending from the east bank of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border.

“Turkey and its Syrian proxies might seek to attack and occupy the territory between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain and toward Manbij, which has become a de facto buffer zone between Turkey and its Syrian proxies and the Kurds,” Özeren said. 

Aaron Stein, Research Director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, pointed out that the Kurdish city of Kobane has been “a target circled on various Turkish maps for years.” 

In a recent interview with Ahval, Hişyar Özsoy, the Vice co-Chair of Foreign Affairs of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, also expressed his suspicion that Kobane would be Turkey’s next target and alleged that Russia has “been encouraging Turkey to attack Kobane for the last two years.”

“Turkey has not attacked until now simply because they made an agreement with the Americans,” he said. “If the United States gives a green light, the next day the Turkish army will attack Kobane.” 

The U.S. government officially opposes Turkey launching any more attacks in that region.  

“We have been very clear that the United States strongly opposes any new military operation by Turkey into northeast Syria,” a State Department spokesperson told Ahval. “This has been conveyed to Turkey both publicly and privately on numerous occasions.” 

The spokesperson noted that the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey in response to the October 2019 operation, signalling Washington’s opposition to the move. More importantly, the spokesperson added, the United States sought to “encourage a rapid change in Turkish behaviour to end their offensive military operations.” 

“These responses led to the statement agreed on Oct. 17 which has kept stable front lines.” 

Washington expects Turkey to live up to its commitments under the Oct. 17 joint statement, which include refraining from launching any additional offensive operations in northeast Syria. 

“Any new offensive would further undermine regional stability and provide malign actors with opportunities to exploit this instability for their own purposes,” the spokesperson said. 

Stein wouldn’t be surprised if there was “some sort of military action” soon but emphasized that this isn’t definitely going to happen. 

“This is all hypothetical, but any further attacks on the SDF aren’t likely to go over well anywhere outside of Turkey,” he said.