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  • Writer's pictureIsaac Gibson

Turkey's Looming Offensive: A Kurdish Quagmire and the Islamic State

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is facing economic disaster, a refugee crisis, and the recovery effort from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, all mere months from a May election. Will his solution be a bold military operation into Syria against the Kurds? The Red Line's Isaac Gibson updates us on the tense situation domestically and in the wider region.


In just the last five years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has faced runaway inflation, a collapsing lira, and daunting sociopolitical challenges, all of which have compounded in the wake of February's 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Neighbouring Syria is also reeling from the disaster, all while still suffering from a 13-year-long civil war that has driven nearly 3.6 million refugees into Turkey, which is now the world’s largest refugee-hosting country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attending a 2022 NATO summit.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is facing a tough election in the wake of economic turbulence and a large influx of refugees. Credit: EPA-EFE/Juan Carlos Hidalgo

Alongside immigration and anti-refugee sentiment, economic discontent has consumed Turkey’s national discourse. With the average cost of living at its highest in decades, Erdoğan is desperate to ease economic pressure before the upcoming elections in May. Although the Turkish lira is slowly showing signs of stabilisation, many Turks still face heightened consumer prices and unemployment. According to the Turkish-based Inflation Research Group, Turkey’s real inflation rate reached 137 per cent in December 2022, a popular talking point for political opposition to the AKP. Another study conducted by Istanbul-based Yöneylem Social Research Centre found that nearly 70 percent of respondents were struggling to pay for food and other daily expenses. Erdoğan has responded by slashing interest rates and vowing to repatriate millions of Turkey’s Syrian refugees through the country’s southern border.


Of the many hot-button issues that dominate Turkish politics, national security has proven to be the most effective foil for Erdoğan and his struggling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Moreover, Turkey's "Kurdish problem" has long been at the forefront of the nationalist political agenda, an issue Erdoğan has leveraged to galvanise his constituencies. In the run-up to Turkey’s national elections slated for this summer, Ankara has hardened its already hawkish stance on Kurdish political and military groups. Erdoğan has increasingly positioned himself as a champion of Turkish nationalism to make political inroads with key voters and allies such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Though much of the AKP's electoral base remains intact, after the six-party alliance nomination of opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in early March and recent opinion polls, many analysts speculate this upcoming election may be the opposition’s best chance to unseat Erdoğan.


To shore up domestic support and address the polarising threat of Kurdish nationalism, Erdoğan could attempt a last-ditch political gamble by launching another military operation. Despite economic stagnation and devastation from the earthquake, the risk of a Turkish ground invasion into Syria’s Kurdish-held territory remains high. If carried out, another incursion into Syria threatens to inflame civil violence, drive local migration, and re-energise the Islamic State.


Against the backdrop of America's waning support for the majority-Kurdish coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a growing domestic political crisis, President Erdoğan's latest threats of invasion come as little surprise to many. In fact, recent cooperation between Washington and Ankara in Syria could signal a shift in U.S. strategy and again, potential Kurdish abandonment by US ground forces. With Turkey's stock as a NATO ally growing and the US's role in Syria increasingly unclear, Ankara appears close to seizing its moment of opportunity.

A map outlining which factions currently control territory within Syria.
A map of Syria indicating which factions are currently controlling the territories. Pink indicate Assad regime-controlled areas. Yellow indicates SDF-controlled areas. Brown on the Turkish-Syrian border indicates control by extremist opposition groups (such as Hayat Tharir al-Sham). Green on the Turkish-Syrian border indicate Turkish-backed opposition groups (such as the Syrian National Army). The green territory surrounding the al-Tanf US military base are controlled by US-backed opposition groups. The black striped section along the northern border indicates Turkey's proposed "safe corridor".

A Strategic Gamble

Throughout the Syrian civil war, the SDF has served as the US-led coalition's stalwart partner against ISIS and primary security guarantor to Syria's northeast, seen as a linchpin for local security and regional immigration by its Western partners. Turkey considers the group a terrorist organization and directly linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). While the SDF and US deny this association, the PKK has largely used the civil war to re-establish its foothold in the region through its assistance to Syrian Kurdish groups. Early in the civil war, the PKK provided support to Syria's militant Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and the group's political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), vis-à-vis advisory assistance, leadership, and resources. The YPG forms the fundamental Kurdish core of the SDF and maintains a strategic, albeit informal, relationship with the Syrian regime. This broad categorization is problematic for the US-Turkey relationship because the SDF has proven instrumental in the US-led coalition’s fight against ISIS.


At the same time, the Washington-SDF alliance is showing signs of weakness. Mounting Turkish pressure on the Biden administration to cease its support for the SDF has led to growing US passivity toward Turkish attacks on the group. Moreover, Erdoğan has appealed to Moscow and Damascus to act jointly against Kurdish militants on the Syrian-Turkish border. However, despite growing dialogue and signs of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, diplomatic pressure has yielded little cooperation. While Damascus opposes Kurdish autonomy in Syria, the SDF has largely managed to avoid confrontation with the Assad regime and is aligned with Russia. Yet, many experts do not believe this political entanglement will be enough to deter Ankara from pursuing an expansionist policy in northern Syria.


Erdoğan believes his pledged land offensive can achieve both domestic and near abroad policy imperatives, claiming that by seizing Syria's northern territory and neutralizing Kurdish forces on the southern border, Turkey can resettle Syrian refugees within a 30km 'safe zone'. From the perspective of the AKP's conservative-nationalist base, this bifurcated strategy would ease pressure on the Turkish lira while supporting national security efforts against Kurdish militants. Furthermore, conducting this operation helps Ankara further consolidate its role as a key powerbroker in Syria's now stalemated civil war. Should an invasion of northern Syria occur, the resulting instability and displacement will drive refugees across the Levant region and Europe.


A full-scale invasion of SDF-controlled territory would be devastating, as the group crucially supports public service provision to millions of the region’s residents. Turkey’s military has engaged in intermittent clashes with the SDF since 2016 across northern Syria, targeting security forces and vital civilian infrastructure. The region is governed by the PYD-run Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava, providing basic security and services to residents vis-à-vis energy extraction, healthcare centers, bakeries, and other essentials.

Families at this municipal-run Syrian refugee camp in Suruc, S-E Turkey receive relief supplies disributed by ECHO partner, Danish Refugee Council.
Nearly 3.6 million refugees now reside in Turkey, many originating from the Syrian civil war, making Turkey the world’s largest refugee-hosting country. Credit: European Union/ECHO/Caroline Gluck

Moreover, the SDF maintains local security by managing ISIS detention facilities and conducting counterterrorism efforts.ISIS prisons and detention centers of suspected family members such as the al-Sinaa prison and al-Hol camp house more than 55,000 families. Recent Turkish airstrikes have killed guards, caused power cuts to these detention facilities, displaced families, and facilitated the escape of ISIS cells. Given the SDF's vital role in securing these facilities and conducting ongoing joint US operations against ISIS, many believe a full-blown invasion by Turkey will lay the groundwork for ISIS's resurgence. By degrading the AANES's model of self-administration and SDF’s military capabilities, Ankara is attempting to force a withdrawal of Kurdish militants in the region. However, while the Turkish military enjoys a wide tactical advantage over the SDF, declaring war in the region once again is a massive undertaking and political gamble for the AKP.

Political Pressure and Mediation

Another invasion of Syria could galvanise AKP opposition and moderate swing voters in the wake of February's earthquake. Given that Erdoğan's crackdown on political opponents and harsh terrorism rhetoric has scared off liberal AKP voters in the past, declaring a state of emergency to invade northern Syria risks alienating a critical voter segment in the lead-up to May's election. An invasion also jeopardises Ankara's increasingly important relationship with Moscow.


Russia has long opposed another Turkish intervention in Syria, instead pushing for normalisation between Ankara and Damascus. During a summit between Ankara and Moscow in May 2022, Erdoğan claimed that Putin had convinced him to cancel an attack in Syria and instead cooperate with Assad's military. While Ankara has shown a willingness to disregard Washington’s objections in the region, Moscow’s red light could force Ankara to abandon its plans for an invasion. Nevertheless, Washington can still play a role in negotiating a settlement between Turkey and the SDF, mitigating further conflict and instability in one of the most fragile regions in the world.


Although the current power-sharing formula of Syria's northeast isn’t perfect by any means, an abrupt change in the status quo will escalate Syria’s stalemated civil war. All parties to the current conflict stand to gain from negotiated de-escalation. Firstly, diplomatic pressure from external actors like the US or Europe can bring Turkey and the Syrian Kurds to the table. Given Turkey's role as a strategic member of NATO and growing influence throughout the region, the US may recalibrate its policy in Syria by reducing its already limited footprint and ceasing support for Kurdish groups. Therefore, to hedge against further drawdown of US troops, the SDF could capitulate and find a political agreement to prevent escalation with Turkey.

"Although the current power-sharing formula of Syria's northeast isn’t perfect by any means, an abrupt change in the status quo will escalate Syria’s stalemated civil war."

If the SDF can verifiably cut ties with the PKK, Turkey will be more inclined to provide security guarantees from its military and affiliated militias. Moreover, implementing more inclusive governance within the AANES will foster greater reconciliation and security cooperation among local Arabs and other tribes. However, although the prospect of greater stability on Turkey’s southern border benefits Ankara, the AKP has lacked the political will to engage in dialogue with the SDF. While it isn’t yet clear how the earthquake’s devastation will affect the enduring conflict, residents of northern Syria will continue to suffer hardships. After a 100 percent increase in illegal Syrian migration to Europe last year, the region is bracing once again for another migrant crisis.

 

Written by Isaac Gibson.

Edited by Wade McCagh.

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