What is Turkey doing in Syria?

Turkish officials have said their only goal in Syria is to push back a Kurdish foe, but their second objective is much more ambitious and could lead to a military quagmire, mass displacement, and international sanctions targeting Turkey’s troubled economy. 

Some 70,000 people have fled their homes, and 10 civilians and 46 Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters have been killed by Turkish forces, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria. 

Meanwhile, many observers of Turkey remain gripped by a simple question: what exactly is Turkey doing in northeast Syria? Right on time, the communications director for Turkey’s president offered an answer in the Washington Post. 

“Turkey has no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralise a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens,” Fahrettin Altun wrote on Wednesday, referring to the SDF, which Ankara views as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

The problem with this reasoning, according to Nick Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, is that the PKK, which launched an armed insurgency in southeast Turkey in 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, maintains a significant presence in Turkey as well as a stronghold across the border in Iraq. 

“Turkey has been defeating the PKK on its own territory for four decades without ever achieving the decisive victory it hoped for,” Danforth told Ahval. “No one in Ankara has explained yet how expanding the fight to Syria will change this dynamic.”

Perhaps this is why Altun, in that same op-ed, outlined Turkey’s second goal in Syria: to resettle as many as 3 million Syrian refugees. Ankara, he said, “is willing and able to take the lead now and drive (the anti-Islamic State campaign) home, bringing millions of refugees back to Syria in the process”.

Yusuf Erim, political analyst at state-run Turkish broadcaster TRT World, acknowledged this second goal. 

“The second phase of this operation is not military, but more humanitarian, that is resettling some of the 3.6 million refugees that Turkey has,” Erim told Ahval, acknowledging that Syrians had become a source of domestic tensions. 

Michael Tanchum, senior fellow at Vienna-based think tank the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, told Ahval that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could not end this military operation without having repatriated a significant number of refugees, as the political cost would be too high. 

Gönül Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, agreed. She argued in Foreign Affairs this week that in the wake of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) loss of control of key Turkish cities in polls earlier this year, expelling Syrian refugees had become a more pressing concern than the SDF for Turkey’s president.  

“Once the self-proclaimed magnanimous patron of all Sunnis, Erdoğan now wants the refugees to go home,” said Tol, arguing that “his rule is at stake”. 

Erdoğan hopes to carve out a buffer zone along the border, 300 miles long and 20 miles deep, and have Turkish construction companies build new cities to house 2 to 3 million refugees, with Europe footing the $27 billion bill. 

“To rebuild this area Turkey is going to need international help,” said Erim, adding that Turkey has spent $40 billion on refugees. “Turkey’s trying to take pro-active steps to solve this issue.” 

Achieving all this likely means that the level of violence in northeast Syria is likely to fall in the weeks ahead, but that Turkey’s operations and administration will be long-lasting and could thus face problems, according to Tanchum. 

“Turkey would be exposed as the U.S. was exposed in Iraq,” he said, fearing multiple insurgencies and a possible quagmire, particularly if the SDF and PKK begin coordinating attacks. 

“There have been reports of extensive tunnel building in northeast Syria,” Tanchum told Ahval. “Turkey's administration of a large swathe of northern Syria may prove more costly than Ankara anticipates, depending on the response of Kurds on both sides of the border.”

Turkey’s president seems to be leveraging the threat of unleashing millions of refugees on Europe to generate support for his plan to use the Turkish military to return those same refugees to their homeland. 

“If you try to define our operation as an occupation, our job is easy, we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees to you,” Erdoğan warned European leaders on Wednesday. 

But so far, his plan appears to be failing. 

Norway on Thursday announced it would be halting all arms purchases from Turkey. French President Emanual Macron has condemned the offensive, arguing that Turkey is putting millions of people at risk and helping ISIS. EU leaders will also discuss possible sanctions when they meet next week. 

U.S. President Donald Trump, who pulled out U.S. forces earlier this week to enable the Turkish incursion, has repeatedly threatened to devastate Turkey’s economy, and influential U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham is leading efforts to put a bill before Congress to impose sanctions on Turkey. 

On Thursday, a State Department official told reporters the United States would impose significant costs if Turkey acted inhumanely, putting ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate fire at civilians in this category. 

“I don’t think Turkish officials are too concerned about facing Trump’s wrath or U.S. sanctions,” said Erim. “Many of these countries that are now very vocal against Turkey’s operation have not stepped foot in Syria or taken part in any type of humanitarian aid to the country.” 

Forcing millions of Syrian refugees out of Turkey and back into a war zone is going to be nearly impossible, according to Tol, who expects Ankara’s efforts to increase Arab-Kurdish tensions, fuel further conflict and cause mass displacement. 

Analysts have also expressed fears of additional refugee flows and ethnic cleansing as Kurds are replaced by Arab refugee settlers, and there have already been signs of a renewed ISIS insurgency.