How Turkey Would Invade Syria

6 MINS READJun 30, 2015 | 20:51 GMT
Turkish military trucks and soldiers near the Akcakale crossing gate between Turkey and Syria on June 15.

Numerous but unverified reports in the Turkish media say the Turkish military will soon intervene in Syria. Notably, high-level officials including Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu have not denied the claims, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken to Twitter to emphasize that the Turks will not allow terror organizations to take advantage of the chaotic environment along Turkey's borders. However, the operation discussed in the media, especially the possibility of a ground incursion, is unlikely. Still, it is worth highlighting the risks that will constrain Turkey in the off chance it decides to pursue such a course of action.

Different scenarios have emerged amid the rumors of a Turkish invasion into Syria. Some reports suggest the military will deploy some 18,000 troops with substantial air support to secure a 30-kilometer (18-mile) deep territory across the border in Syria running from the city of Jarabulus westward to the areas occupied by the rebels around the city of Azaz. The operation would cover an area currently under Islamic State control, and it would attempt to secure a buffer zone for Turkey that would deeply hurt the extremist group, provide assistance to Syrian rebels and facilitate the resettlement of Syrian refugees. It would also drastically escalate Turkey's role in the conflict, making such a scenario highly unlikely.

Other far more plausible scenarios for Turkish involvement have also emerged, including an operation that would provide increased support for the Free Syrian Army and artillery and airstrikes, but that would avoid the more sensitive prospect of introducing ground forces. It is almost certain that the Turks will ramp up their border control efforts as well, hurting the Islamic State's core supply lines through Turkey. It will be important to watch for raids and crackdowns on Islamic State-affiliated smuggling rings in the border towns.

The Politics of War

Domestic political considerations could be motivating talk of invading Syria, especially in the case of more risky options. Talk of a significant unilateral military operation against the Islamic State comes directly after an indecisive election in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party could be trying to mobilize a voter reaction, particularly among the Nationalist Movement Party, as it looks to either build a coalition government or stage early elections.  

On top of domestic political motivations, the foreign implications of an operation in Syria are clear. Dealing a blow to the Islamic State would go a long way in repairing Turkey's relationship with the United States and NATO, which have accused Turkey of being complacent against the extremist group. That Turkey would largely avoid territory controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units will further mend the relationship. And targeting the Islamic State's flank, especially in the Jarabulus-Azaz zone, would greatly benefit the rebel forces in Aleppo province, enabling them to divert forces away from fighting the Islamic State to secure Aleppo city.

Despite the reasoning supporting potential operations, it is clear that any Turkish military campaign in Syria carries tremendous and varied risks. For instance, an operation to secure a buffer zone running from Jarabulus to Azaz in Syria would constitute nothing less than a major assault on the Islamic State. This specific border area is of paramount importance to the Islamic State, since it is its last significant link to foreign recruits and supplies. Thus, the extremist group could be expected to fight intensively against a Turkish intervention. The Turkish military would need to be prepared to sustain heavy casualties in difficult fighting against an enemy proficient in the use of guerilla strikes and suicide attacks.

Even more important, it is almost certain that the Islamic State would plan mass casualty terrorist attacks inside Turkey itself. The Turkish government probably has not cracked down on the Islamic State up to this point because it wants to avoid such attacks. The Islamic State has also, over time, developed an underground presence in Turkey, facilitating its lines of supplies and men into Syria. Given Turkey's delicate political and economic situation, numerous large-scale terrorist attacks in Turkish cities could have a significant destabilizing effect.

Wider Risks

Blowback from the Islamic State is not the only risk of military intervention. It is unclear how the Syrian government would react to an operation, despite the fact that it has no control over the targeted area. Already angry at Turkey's support for Syrian rebels fighting against its forces in the north, Damascus could militarily engage the Turkish forces crossing the border through ballistic missile strikes or air raids. While these methods probably would not hurt or even disrupt the Turkish operation, they would raise the stakes in an already dangerous conflict and could draw Turkey and potentially its allies deeper into the Syrian civil war.

Iran and Russia, both of which still strongly back the Syrian government, would also be unhappy with direct Turkish involvement in the conflict. Turkey maintains substantial economic links with Iran and Russia, and these countries could punish Turkey economically if it chooses to intervene in Syria. Addressing the reports of an impending Turkish military operation, Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Ali Reza Bikdeli even said that any such move by Turkey would destroy Ankara's ability to influence a peaceful settlement in Syria.

Some extreme rebel groups fighting the Islamic State, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, pose yet another risk to Turkey. While rebel groups such as those within the Free Syrian Army, the Shamiya Front and even allies of Jabhat al-Nusra within the Islamic Front may welcome a Turkish military operation against the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra's reaction remains unpredictable and tenuous. It is entirely possible that Turkish soldiers may find themselves fighting against more than one powerful Islamist group in Syria.

Intervention Is Still a Remote Possibility

Furthermore, reports from Turkey demonstrate that the Turkish military is still hesitant about an operation in Syria, despite the political will to move forward. The Turkish military is fully capable of completing the mission, but it is understandable that commanders would not be keen on commencing such an important operation without a clear mandate, especially given the uncertain political climate following the indecisive elections. Any mandate at this point could potentially be revoked with the new government. Absent strong Turkish military motivation, the mission is likely to suffer from a lack of coordination and purpose.

It is also worth mentioning that for all these risks, the fear that the Kurds will be targeted is not realistic. Turkey has made it vehemently clear that it will not tolerate the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Syria, and so there is naturally considerable tension with the Kurdish People's Protection Units. However, the operation, as presently discussed in Turkish media, would largely ignore the Kurds. It would take place not only in an area devoid of Kurdish forces, but also in an area that the already overstretched Kurds have no real ability to occupy, regardless of Turkish military intervention. Talk of the way the operation would prevent the future linking of the Afrin and Kobani cantons misses the geographic and capability constraints on the Kurdish People's Protection Units.

A Turkish military move into Syria is still far from certain, but it is more likely now than ever. Raising the potential of such an incursion could be a political maneuver by the ruling government to secure additional votes from other parties in the runup to early elections. But if Turkey undertakes such an operation, it will have to manage multiple and varied consequences, domestically and abroad.

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