Editor's Note: This assessment was published shortly before the United States and Turkey reached a last-minute deal to jointly coordinate the establishment of a safe zone in northeastern Syria. At present, the countries have not released any details regarding a timeline for the buffer zone's implementation or its geographical scope.
He's made the threat before, but this time, it might just be the real thing. On Aug. 6, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his warnings that Turkey is poised to launch a military operation against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) east of the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria. The latest note came two days after Erdogan said Ankara had already notified both the United States and Russia of its plans.
This is certainly not Turkey's first warning of an impending offensive in northeastern Syria. Turkey has long sought to push into the area, where the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hold ground. Until now, Turkey has not made an incursion because of the presence of U.S. troops there, as well as Washington's opposition to any such move. But Ankara's patience appears to have run out, and several factors suggest Turkey will make an incursion sooner, rather than later — regardless of the economic cost that would entail.
A number of events in recent years have strained the once-close partnership between the United States and Turkey. A Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria would further shake this battered alliance, resulting in drastic consequences, including potentially heavy economic sanctions on Turkey.
Tired of Waiting
One primary factor driving a potential Turkish incursion is the failure of U.S.-Turkish negotiations on the issue. For months, Ankara has held out hope that the two could agree to a substantial buffer zone in northeastern Syria that would permit its troops to enter the area without the unavoidable deterioration in bilateral ties that would accompany a unilateral Turkish operation. Turkey has pushed for a 32-kilometer-deep (20-mile) zone across the length of the Turkish-Syrian border east of the Euphrates River that would provide a significant buffer between YPG forces and Turkey, allow Ankara to resettle more Syrian refugees in the area and give Turkey a chance to establish allied Syrian proxies as it has done west of the Euphrates River. Unsurprisingly, the YPG has categorically rejected the proposal, countering that it would only agree to a 5-kilometer buffer in mostly non-populated areas of the border, as some of the region's largest cities lie right on the Turkish border. Additionally, the YPG has said it will not accept any buffer zone under Turkey's control.
According to The Washington Post, a U.S. Department of Defense delegation arrived in Turkey on Aug. 5 for last-ditch negotiations on the impasse, offering a compromise proposal that includes a 14- to 15-kilometer-deep buffer zone along a third of the Syrian-Turkish border east of the Euphrates that would be jointly patrolled by U.S. and Turkish forces. While it is still possible that the two countries will reach an eleventh-hour deal, it is more likely the talks will fail given the sizable discrepancy between their positions on the size and scope of the proposed buffer. If the talks do collapse, Turkey — fed up with what it sees as both a lack of U.S. concessions and stalling tactics — is likely to proceed with a unilateral push into northeastern Syria with the tens of thousands of combat-ready troops that it has deployed to the border.
The timing might also push Turkey to enter northeastern Syria sooner rather than later. Ankara is concerned that if it waits any longer, the United States will find the time required to bring in more allied troops to the area — something that would make it more politically costly for Turkey to intervene there. At the same time, Turkey has managed to hammer out another cease-fire deal with Russia covering their respective proxy forces and allies in Idlib in western Syria. But as evidenced by the Syrian army's resumption of airstrikes against rebels on Aug. 5, that cease-fire is inherently fragile, meaning Turkey only has a limited window to launch an offensive in the northeast before fighting almost certainly resumes in the northwest, creating a distraction. Regardless of the prospect of a likely end to the truce in Idlib, the cease-fire itself suggests that Russia has given the green light to Turkey's plans in the northeast, with Moscow undoubtedly all the more pleased to drive a deeper wedge between Ankara and Washington as a result of the operation.
Turkey's Soft Underbelly
Of course, a Turkish offensive against the SDF east of the Euphrates would deal a hammer blow to U.S.-Turkish relations, which have already nosedived since Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 missile defense system, prompting Washington to retaliate by banning F-35 sales to Ankara. And then there's the added risk of an accidental confrontation between the incoming Turkish troops and the U.S. troops currently embedded there. Equally concerning for the United States is the prospect that the pitched fighting between the Turks and the SDF could allow remnants of the Islamic State to take advantage of the chaos to regroup.
Of course, a Turkish offensive against the SDF east of the Euphrates would deal a hammer blow to U.S.-Turkish relations.
Until now, U.S. President Donald Trump has resisted imposing Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) stipulations and other sanctions against Turkey, but Washington would likely implement new sanctions against Ankara following any such Turkish operation, further spiking hostility between the two states. In response, Ankara may choose to retaliate against U.S. companies operating in Turkey, while it would likely seek even closer ties with Russia and China to counterbalance its eroding relationship with the United States.
A renewed push into northeastern Syria would also present a great risk to the Turkish economy, which is heavily debt-ridden and only recently emerged from a recession that plagued the country at the end of 2018. Inflation and unemployment remain high, while the domestic consumption of goods and services has slumped. Apart from the looming threat of CAATSA sanctions, the White House has threatened to sanction Turkey if it does not comply with U.S. policy wishes in Syria; such a shock could heap more downward pressure on the fragile lira, which already experienced one currency crisis in 2018. In the end, for all his mercurial qualities, Erdogan has been consistent on one policy front: privileging national security over the concerns of the economy. And as Turkey prepares to strike at northeastern Syria, the country is about to learn how low its economy — and its relations with the United States — can go.