Air strikes have been hitting Syria from inside Turkey since late July, targeting the Kurdish militia known as the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel—the People’s Protection Units. For years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he intends to destroy the YPG, and in recent months he’s warned increasingly of a Turkish incursion into northern Syria to do it. The YPG controls territory in the country’s north, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, outside the reach of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But YPG fighters are mostly Syrian Kurds, with Arabs and some foreigners in the mix, and the militia doesn’t have any ambitions in Turkey at all. Meanwhile, the YPG has become an ally of the United States, which armed and supported it as it helped defeat the Islamic State in 2014 and 2015, and the group has since continued to work closely with the U.S. to oust the Assad regime in Syria—an objective the allies have shared with Turkey. So what is Erdoğan doing?
Henri Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the author of five books about Turkey and the Kurdish people. As Barkey sees it, Erdoğan is attacking the Syrian Kurds for reasons of both domestic politics and state interest. The political motivation might be more urgent, Barkey says, because the Turkish president is facing reelection next year and has a pressing incentive to create the impression of a major military victory—turning voters’ attention away from Turkey’s struggling economy, with inflation near 80 percent and the country running short on foreign reserves. Over the longer term, Erdoğan wants to prevent Turkish Kurds from gaining autonomy in the country’s southeast—and to that end, he also wants to see the YPG, and any autonomous Kurdish rule, disappear in Syria too. The only reason why Erdoğan hasn’t invaded Syria already, Barkey says, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected the plan—because he fears Turkey would try to keep any territory it captured. Still, it’s not clear whether Putin will keep saying no, knowing how serious a rupture he could cause between Turkey and the U.S. by saying yes.
Michael Bluhm: How likely do you see it being that Turkey will invade northern Syria?
Henri Barkey: A major operation is unlikely, I’d say. The Russians don’t appear to have given the okay when Vladimir Putin met Erdoğan in Sochi in early August. The United States is very sensitive about the issue too—and has lost patience with Turkey over it.
The Russians aren’t convinced that Turkey should do it. It’s not that Moscow cares about the Kurds; it’s that the Turks have already taken over a significant chunk of territory in northern Syria—and in threatening to take over more territory, they’re effectively threatening to change the character of Syria. Which the Syrian government certainly doesn’t want.
And there would be an uproar in the U.S. Congress if Turkey invaded. Turkey has very little credit in Congress now. There used to be a significant Turkish lobby there, but I don’t imagine there’s a single member of congress or senator who would publicly defend Turkey now. If anything, there is a move in Congress to stop the Biden administration from selling F-16s to Turkey—or even from upgrading the F-16s the Turks already have. So a Turkish incursion into northern Syria would engender a very significant backlash. There’s already talk in Washington about sanctions against Turkey on account of its collaboration with Russia.
Bluhm: How much does Erdoğan want to invade? He seems repeatedly to have said over the past few months that he wants to go in and crush the YPG.