In another step toward greater foreign involvement in the Syrian civil war, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Tuesday that Turkey is considering taking part in a coalition ground operation targeting the Islamic State.
Turkey has been pushing for an operation to create a buffer zone between the border and Islamic State-controlled territory in northern Aleppo province for quite some time. A successful operation would serve Turkish interests by hurting the Islamic State, strengthening the rebel position in northern Syria, preventing the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from expanding farther westward and — because Turkey does not want to go it alone — drawing the United States further into the conflict. Risks aside, if the commitment of Turkish troops increases the operation's likelihood of success, then the Turkish government is making it clear that it may be willing to make that commitment.
An operation at this moment would be bad news for the Islamic State. In Iraq, the group has largely lost its initiative; it has conceded territory around Beiji and is gradually being pushed back around Ramadi. Loyalist forces in Syria are also increasingly targeting the Islamic State. On Tuesday they pushed back Islamic State forces that had been besieging the Kweiris air base in eastern Aleppo province and mounted assaults to take back Palmyra. Finally, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, consisting of both Arab and Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, are making some gains in their recent attacks on Islamic State positions.
The Islamic State can ill afford to lose ground in northern Aleppo, which represents its last real logistical connection to the outside world, including access to vital resources and foreign recruits who cross the Syria-Turkey border. The Islamic State is expected to put up a ferocious fight for the territory.
But even if Turkey is inclined to put its ground forces in Syria, it will be cautious in its commitment. Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is riding high after its win in Nov. 1 elections, but neither the Turkish public nor the military is eager to get involved in Syria. This is why the Turkish government is hesitant to unilaterally increase its involvement in Syria. The Turks have stressed that they are not ready to embark on a Syrian adventure without active backing from a cohesive coalition. In practice, this means the firm commitment and support of the United States. Though Washington has pledged a degree of assistance and involvement in a joint operation against the Islamic State in northern Aleppo, Ankara may continue to judge its commitment as insufficient and overly focused on the Islamic State. For the Turkish government, the destruction of the government of President Bashar al Assad remains an equal, if not larger, priority in Syria.
The Turks may be willing to commit ground forces to Syria, but political considerations will restrict them to using mostly special operations forces with some regular army support. The primary force to be relied on in the seizure — and more important, the occupation — of terrain would thus have to be Turkish rebel proxies. Yet the rebels are currently heavily committed to the fight against the recent Russian- and Iranian-backed offensives from Aleppo to Latakia, and so they are not in a position to spare considerable resources to an operation of this magnitude. Before moving forward, Turkey would have to consider the possibility of committing its own ground forces to secure and hold territory.
Another major issue is that such a campaign would necessitate more communication and coordination between Russian forces and Turkish and U.S. forces. Failure here would greatly complicate any ground operations and would introduce a potentially unacceptable risk of clashes with Russia, a scenario both Turkey and the United States want to avoid. For this reason, a developing negotiation between Turkey and Russia will need to be watched in the weeks ahead.
The Turkish government wants to see a buffer in northern Aleppo but must decide what it is willing to risk. A successful operation in northern Aleppo could better position Turkey to pursue its interests in Syria and beyond, but the operation could also open up the Justice and Development Party to significant challenges to its national standing as well as Turkey's regional position. The temptation toward mission creep is very high in Syria for these external state sponsors. They want to influence the ground fight and are putting in limited resources to do so, but other sponsors are responding with contributions of their own, leading to a slow escalation of support from all sides. When the conflict started, no one wanted to send even a single soldier. How far will these states go to realize their interests in the longer term?