With fighting continuing between combatants in Syria’s civil war along the more than 500-mile Syrian-Turkish border, an increased number of Turkish military units have been seen at key points along the border in recent days. While Turkey has guarded the border since the start of the Syrian civil war, recent actions appear to exceed reasonable defensive measures and have caused some in the Turkish press to question whether they are preparations for a potential offensive campaign.
What remains unclear is the target of a potential Turkish incursion into Syria and the motivations of Turkey’s leadership if such action were ordered.
There is reason to believe that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more interested in reversing recent tactical gains made by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), which has become an important U.S. partner in fighting the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), rather than taking on ISIS itself.
Recent Developments on Turkey-Syria Border
Turkey’s mobilization of troops came shortly after the capture of the ISIS-held Syrian town of Tel Abyad (1) by the YPG on June 14 and 15 and the subsequent ISIS counterattack on the YPG-held town of Kobani. The Turkish English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman, along with other media outlets, suggested that the ISIS operation against Kobani was abetted by Turkey’s government, as ISIS fighters appear to have traveled through Turkish territory to stage the attack, an allegation that Ankara vehemently denied.
On June 27, major military activity took place on Turkey’s side of the border. In the southeastern province of Mardin (2), Turkish army troops began digging trenches in the hills close to the border with Kurdish Syria. Further west, a series of rocket batteries were set up at Karkamiş (3) overlooking the ISIS-controlled town of Jarabulus. Most significantly, the Turkish army moved 32 tanks from a base in Gaziantep south to Kilis’s Elbeyli district (4), directly across the border from other ISIS areas. Equipment has now been placed across from Kurdish-controlled areas, ISIS territory, and Syrian Free Army (FSA) regions.
Both ISIS and the YPG responded to these actions quickly. ISIS militants have been spotted digging trenches to prevent Turkish armored vehicles from crossing the border and have reportedly begun planting mines in the desert between Jarablus and Karkamiş. Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) spokesman Murat Karayılan claimed Syrian Kurdish forces were ready to defend themselves against any “aggression” on the part of Turkey, and called on the country’s leaders to “stop their provocative and reckless acts.”
Turkey’s Official Objectives: Reasons for Skepticism
Turkish officials have unanimously dismissed any claims of belligerence and denied thoughts of intervention. On June 30, in a televised interview, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu rejected the possibility that Turkey would undertake an immediate operation into Syria. Reuters reported that a senior government official affiliated with the Turkish National Security Council claimed that Turkey will not unilaterally act within Syrian territory and would require an international coalition to consider an offensive operation. On July 3, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced to the Turkish media that, “no one should have the expectation that Turkey will enter Syria tomorrow or in the near term.”
With a coalition government yet to be formed following Turkish parliamentary elections earlier this year, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu expressed unease with the troop and weapons placements. Kılıçdaroğlu publicly spoke out against any foreign intervention on June 29, proclaiming, “As the head of the CHP, I am warning them not to drag Turkey into an adventure.” AKP officials have also qualified their statements, placing great importance on ensuring that “border gates not coming under the control of ISIL or the PYD.”
One explanation for why Turkey is bolstering its offensive capabilities cited in Today’s Zaman is that government officials want to create a “buffer zone” to house displaced Syrians outside of Turkey. Turkish and international press reports have circulated the claim that 18,000 Turkish troops are ready to seize a 70-mile long and 20-mile deep stretch of territory along the border (5). This would contain territory stretching from Jarablus (6) in ISIS hands to Aazaz (7) under FSA control, with a large swath of Kurdish territory in the eastern half of this strip. It is uncertain if this plan will actually be carried out, however, since intervention is illegal under Turkish law without a parliamentary vote and under international law without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Further, observers from the Hurriyet Daily News have speculated that the military would object to actually going through with any government plans to create a buffer zone, since the consequences of involving Turkish troops in an international conflict would be too great in both the short- and long term. The United States, despite considering such a proposal in the second half of 2014, has ruled out the use of a northern buffer zone near Turkey due to the logistical challenges it presents. Proceeding without American or other international backing could result in strained relations and a lower chance of success.
Turkish Mistrust of Syrian Kurds
Another reason why Turkey may be mobilizing military units is the country’s long-held distrust of the Syrian Kurdish forces. Fearing that the creation of a Kurdish state in the north of Syria by a powerful PYD and YPG may lead to Turkish Kurds campaigning for independence or irredentism, some speculate that Turkey may have begun plans to create a buffer zone to disrupt Kurdish forces.
There is considerable evidence that the Turkish establishment under Erdoğan has long considered incursion into Syrian territory to defend what they consider interests of Turkish national security. As early as July 2012, Erdoğan publicly stated that an intervention into northern Syria is a “most natural right” if an “irritant” would emerge there. In March 2014, a leak detailing scandals within the Turkish Cabinet exposed a December 2013 conversation between then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu and Hakan Fidan, head of the National Intelligence Organization, where a ‘false flag’ operation was considered to instigate war and act as the rationale behind invasion. Fidan was recorded as having offered to, “send 4 men from Syria, if that’s what it takes. I’ll make up a cause of war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey; we can also prepare an attack on Suleiman Shah Tomb if necessary.”
Not only have AKP officials considered illegitimate means for justification for war, Erdoğan has also demonstrated the extent to which they consider the YPG a threat to national security. In October 2014, Erdoğan asserted that, “At the moment, the PYD is equal with the PKK for us. It is also a terrorist organization.” In the same speech, he went on to equate the PKK and ISIS, claiming that they were “the same for Turkey.” Just last week, President Erdogan reiterated his beliefs after the fall of Tel Abyad, proclaiming, “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.” In his press conference on July 3rd, Davutoglu reiterated Turkey’s right to act unilaterally in self defense, stating, “If anything occurred that were to threaten Turkish security, we wouldn’t wait for tomorrow, we would go right in.” Though he did not specify if this threat could be Kurdish, the combined President and Prime Minister’s combined sentiments could justify war to stop PYD gains against ISIS.
Recent Kurdish Progress Marks New Turkish Initiative
Suffering few losses in Tel Abyad, seeing ISIS troops melt away before them, and killing over 60 enemy combatants in the defense of Kobani (8) on June 27, Syrian Kurdish forces backed by American air support appear to be stronger than ever before. After the victory at Tel Abyad, a YPG fighter claimed that ISIS, “tries to compensate its losses in Tel Abyad, but our forces are prepared for further advance in the battle for Raqqa province (9).” As of July 1, YPG has even expressed interest in expanding its reach to Afrin (10), a Kurdish enclave currently under Assad’s government control. These moves would broaden Kurdish control to eclipse almost all of the Syrian-Turkish border, making Turkish leaders nervous. Kurdish gains and momentum against ISIS could be the explanatory factor for why Turkey has begun posturing now, and not previously.
As speculation runs rampant and the Kurds continue their advances into ISIS territory, the Turkish government will decide whether or not to act on what it contends is a dire national security issue: the expansion of YPG control.