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Wag the Dog

The Signal
Why does Turkey seem to be getting ready to invade northern Syria? Henri Barkey on the tangled interests that will determine whether intensifying military operations turn into war.
Osman Koycu
Osman Koycu
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.
Barkey: If you gave Erdoğan unlimited freedom of action, he would send a huge number of troops across the border. There’s no question about it.
Bluhm: Yet the YPG operates exclusively in Syria—so why does Erdoğan consider them a threat?
Barkey: The YPG has become strong largely because of the United States. The U.S. started to support it in 2014, when the Islamic State, ISIS, was attacking Kobani, a major city in the Kurdish part of Syria. The U.S. president at the time, Barack Obama, asked the Turks to intervene, but they refused. So the Americans decided to help the YPG.
The YPG became the single most important force that defeated ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi army and Iraqi Kurds fizzled out in front of ISIS. The United States feels a major obligation toward the YPG, because they’ve lost a lot of men and women fighting ISIS—and still do. They control a prison that has thousands of ISIS detainees. We don’t know what would happen if they were to abandon that.
The Turks are terrified that what happened in northern Iraq will happen in northern Syria. In the 1990s, the Turks were vehemently opposed to Iraqi Kurds having any rights. They were upset about the no-fly zone that the United States created after the first Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds. That zone eventually blossomed into the Kurdistan Regional Government, the KRG, which is now part of a federal Iraq—though the Turks do get along alright with the Kurdish party that controls the KRG now.
But fundamentally, Turkey is afraid that the same thing—an autonomous Kurdish region—will happen in Syria. And if it happens in Syria, what’s next? Turkey. They’re afraid that Turkish Kurds will say, The Iraqi Kurds got to be an autonomous part of a federated state. Now the Syrian Kurds got that. We should push for it too.
Bashar Alkhouli
Bashar Alkhouli
More from Henri Barkey at The Signal:
Erdoğan wants to eradicate the YPG and stop the Americans’ involvement with it. It’s a Syrian organization, not Turkish. But the Turks have always seen it as part of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party—once a very powerful organization that inspired, and probably assisted and trained it. The U.S., for its part, has been transparent about what it is doing with the YPG: It’s an anti-ISIS operation, and that’s it. These people just happen to be the best fighters in the region. … Erdoğan is meanwhile up for reelection as president next June, on the same day as the vote for Parliament. Turkish news media, which are mostly controlled by Erdoğan, would make an operation in Syria look like an enormous victory. And this is one issue where the opposition doesn’t dare criticize him. The two major non-Kurdish opposition parties support Erdoğan’s Syria operations. So the idea of an invasion is something he sees as uniting the country behind him.”
Think of it from Putin’s perspective: On the one hand, why give the Turks the go-ahead in Syria, when they’re selling drones to Ukraine? On the other hand, it would be in Putin’s interest to put distance between Turkey and the United States, given the animosity between the U.S. and Russia. I’m surprised that Putin hasn’t given the Turks the okay to go into northern Syria, because that would create a major crisis between them and the U.S. Maybe this is a card he’s holding for later. If he were to give the okay, and the Turks were to go in, all hell would break loose in Washington—and the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. would really suffer. Putin knows that he could create a major crisis here, but he’s held back.”
Turkey is already doing a military operation in Syria. On a near daily basis, Turkey is attacking the YPG and killing their fighters. They even killed the number-two person in the YPG about two weeks ago. It’s a little shocking that the U.S. was largely silent about this and isn’t preventing the Turks from conducting air strikes and drone strikes against the YPG. But that tells Erdoğan he can get away with it, and so he’ll continue to assassinate people. He doesn’t need a major military operation; he can just escalate the things he’s already doing. Eventually, he’ll say, We’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve without a major military operation. He’ll try to sell that domestically as a great victory. He has to, he’s been talking about it for such a long time.”
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