Turkey is on a collision course with the Syrian regime and its backers

euphrates_shield_11-30-2016

Last Thursday an attack struck Turkish positions near the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab in northern Syria, killing three soldiers and wounding 10. Centered between Turkish and rebel forces in the north, the Kurds in the east and west, and the Syrian regime forces in the south, al-Bab is the point of convergence for the three competing interests in northern Syria. Conflicting reports on the perpetrators of Thursday’s attack are indicative of the complex situation with a variety of hostile actors concentrated only miles apart, with inevitable clashes among them looking closer than ever. Whether the perpetrator of Thursday’s attack will prove to be the Islamic State (ISIS) or Russian-backed Syrian regime forces, Turkey is on a collision course that it may not be prepared for.

Immediately following the attack, Turkish sources blamed the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) and issued a media ban to block inquiries into the situation. Falling on the first anniversary of Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet – an incident which caused a nine month diplomatic spat between Ankara and Moscow – the attack prompted speculation of retaliation by Russia – or by the Russian-backed SyAAF. Indeed, back and forth phone calls between the Turkish and Russian Presidents in the 48 hours following the incident strengthened such suspicions. In the meantime, however, other reports emerged indicating the attack could have been a suicide bombing by the Islamic State.

Whoever the perpetrator, the assault should serve as a wake-up call for Turkey as it advances towards al-Bab, challenging each of its many adversaries on the ground head on. With each side committed to its own gameplan, a military confrontation between the Turkish-led Euphrates Shield and pro-regime forces appear inescapable. More generally, Thursday’s attack should be an acute reminder that tensions between Ankara and Moscow are a mere spark away from reigniting the flames of only a year ago.

Since launching its intervention in Syria in August, Turkish forces partnering with Free Syrian Army (FSA) branded units have advanced south into ISIS-held territory, increasingly close to regime forces besieging Aleppo in the southwest. While the stated goal of the operation was to push the Islamic State away from the Turkish border, Ankara’s other – and all the more important – aim has been to block Kurdish territorial expansion through the Aleppo Governorate. The successful capture of ISIS-held Manbij by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) in early August, combined with advances by the Kurds from the Afrin Canton in the west, was cause for alarm for Turkish leaders. Ankara has been engaged in a bloody war with the Kurdish-separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at home for four decades, and does not differentiate between the group and its Syrian affiliate, the Peoples’ Protection Unity (YPG). Since 2014, the YPG’s fight against ISIS has allowed the Kurds to extend their territorial control in northern Syria. With the liberation of Manbij, they came close to controlling a nearly 400-miles of Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria.

Further compounding the complexity is the US-led Coalition’s support for YPG advances in Syria, reluctantly seeing the Kurdish group and its SDF allies as the only effective local partner to destroy ISIS. This pragmatic partnership has been a major source of tension between Ankara and Washington for over a year, and the reason why Turkey launched operation Euphrates Shield without coordination with the anti-ISIS Coalition. While the US and Turkey did temporarily come to an agreement for the US to support Euphrates Shield’s southward advance, poor coordination and a lack of trust between the two NATO allies has resulted in the US pulling its air assets and special forces from participating in the effort to seize al-Bab.

Without U.S. air cover, Turkish forces are particularly vulnerable to SyAAF or Russian airstrikes if al-Bab is indeed a red line for the regime as reports suggest. The Turkish Air Force (TAF) is desperately low on pilots in the wake of July’s coup attempt and the subsequent purges of the military’s officer corps (reports indicate more than 350 pilots, including many of the force’s most experienced, were dismissed). Even if fully staffed, the TAF would struggle to penetrate Syrian air space because of the formidable Russian air defense bubble over western Syria – which extends to al-Bab and deep into Turkey.

Yet, Turkey appears undeterred, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declaring that Turkey’s intervention is to “end the rule of the cruel Assad.” Moreover, the FSA branded factions fighting alongside Turkish troops are determined to advance through al-Bab and towards regime lines to help relieve their besieged comrades in Aleppo. Once al-Bab falls, whether to Turkish and FSA forces or pro-regime elements, the buffer that now separates Euphrates Shield and the regime’s eastern flank around Aleppo will be too small to prevent clashes. Such a scenario risks pulling the United States further into the Syrian theater – not to strengthen the fight against ISIS, but to defend an incorrigible NATO ally.

Patrick Megahan is a research analyst on military affairs at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate focused on Turkey. Follow them on Twitter: @PatMegahan and @MerveTahiroglu

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9 Comments

  • Paddy Singh says:

    Who in hell is Erdogan to try and end Syria’s Assad? The latter was far more secular than the former and if Turkish forces are attacked by the Syrians and Russians, they have no room for complaint bas the Turks would be the aggressors. Turkey has to be kept in line.

  • Dave Roberts says:

    Quite a conceivable scenario. The situation in Syria is reminiscient of the events that led up to WWI. In that case, there were many large players who were backing various smaller groups. Unfortunately, the small guys had their own ideas about what should and shouldn’t happen and they would periodically ignore their paymasters. Eventually, a Serbian nationalist wound up killing the Arch Duke Ferdinand and bingo, WWI.

    Here we have an almost identical situation with Russia, the USA and the EU being the larger players, in turn each backs various smaller players who are vying for control of parts of Syria and or Iraq. Will this result in a new world war? Some have stated that WWIII has already begun, and that it will only be after it’s all over that we’ll be able to look back at the carnage, just as in WWI.

  • Moose says:

    Erdogan is one of the most reckless leaders I have ever seen. Everyone knows his coup was a false flag. Turkey is in for one hell of a ride with this guy.

  • Arjuna says:

    US sees “the Kurdish group and its SDF allies as the only effective local partner to destroy ISIS”?? Really? Not the duly-elected President of Syria and his long-term allies Iran and Russia? Those are who I’d like to fight ISIS with. We are on the wrong side in this war, fighting ISIS with rogue splinter factions (PKK/YPK) and the Gulf-backed JFS types we deal with holding our noses. We should have a peace council with Putin and make destroying ISIS, not unseating Assad, the priority.

  • Evan says:

    Why should we?
    Why should we defend the Turks?
    I remember reading about and seeing a whole stadium full of Turks, applauding the Islamic States attack on Paris.

    If they’re too stupid to see the trap laid for them, and they haphazardly walk right into it, they can walk themselves right out of it.
    They’ve created this situation, for years they allowed and even encouraged foreign jihadists to enter Syria through their border. They entered into the fray of battle, into what is obviously a complex and fragile situation, without being informed or prepared.
    Incorrigible indeed.

  • pre-Boomer Marine brat says:

    In addition, and IMHO, the odds are pretty good that Erdogan’s recent wholesale purges (Kemalist, Gulenist, everybody) have crippled the Turkish Armed Forces. The Army is probably being run by its second string strategic commanders — and possibly so as far down as the battalion level.

    After the past 6 months, this is no longer the Brigade which fought in Korea.

  • Robert says:

    Much of this is mindboggling, but right now my mind is stuck on the relationship between Turkey and Russia, who have made some romantic diplomatic gestures of late, only to have Turkey fighting against Russia’s ally Assad . This is tippy toe diplomacy at its knifes edge.
    Friend or foe ? Frenemy ? Both Russia and the West find Turkey as a valued piece of real estate, not so much caring for the current regime, but careful not to step on a diplomatic mine and ruin any chances of being the most favored nation.

  • John Allen says:

    Patrick and Merve,

    Very insightful, well-written article; such as your observation– “Yet, Turkey appears undeterred, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declaring that Turkey’s intervention is to ‘end the rule of the cruel Assad’ “– reveals your understanding that, as a Sunni powerhouse, and power-brokered by Erdogan, Turkey has for a long time set its gaze on the overthrow of Assad’s Shia regime.

    I am a retired Army CW5, with experience in PSYOPS and Geospatial Intelligence, and post-army civilian work (2013) with TRADOC/DA in Afghanistan Regional Command Central (RCC) as a research manager.

    Would that our leaders back in the early 2000’s gave heed to “analysis” such as yours.

    John Allen
    CW5 USA (RET)

  • John says:

    The Kurds need to cede ground north of Aleppo to bring Turkish and Regime forces into conflict.

    the more those 2 bleed, the less they have to throw at the Kurds.

    If I were the Kurds, I would not go head to head with the Regime with the Russian or Iranians backing them.

    Not yet anyway.

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