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Turkey’s northern Syria operation a test of the SDF’s allies and an opportunity for regime and Iranian expansion

Signs of an imminent Turkish operation in northern Syria are not apparent. But amid blistering Turkish rhetoric, the shape of things to come depends on Ankara’s resolve, Washington and Moscow’s stances, and what options the SDF has to fight back.

10 June 2022

PARIS — Despite official Turkish statements about the launch of a military operation across its southern border against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, the lines of contact between the two sides do not appear to indicate that the launch of the operation is imminent. Ankara has not mobilized its military forces on the border, as in previous military operations. 

Officially, Ankara’s military operation aims to complete a safe zone 30 kilometers deep, along Turkey’s southern border. Turkey began to create the zone in its October 2019 cross-border Operation Peace Spring, with the participation of the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA). Political escalation in the run-up to the Turkish operation raises several questions about Ankara’s resolve, Washington and Moscow’s stance on the operation, and what options the SDF has to confront a Turkish operation, whether militarily or by seeking help from other parties. 

Political or military escalation?

On May 24, the United States expressed concern about a Turkish operation in northern Syria and its impact on the civilian population. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a press briefing that any new attack “would further undermine regional stability and put at risk US forces in the coalition’s campaign against [the Islamic State] ISIS.” 

Price said “we expect Turkey to live up to the October 2019 joint statement, including to halt offensive operations in northeastern Syria.” 

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on June 1, renewed his country’s resolve to launch the military escalation, and said that it aims at “cleansing the [northern Aleppo] areas of Tel Rifaat and Manbij of terrorists.”

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the US-backed SDF in northern Syria, to be an extension of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the US. 

One day after Erdoğan’s remarks, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russian state media there was “no point in speculating” about a military operation in northern Syria before “contacts with Turkish colleagues.” On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, alongside a delegation of Russian Defense Ministry representatives, arrived in Ankara for a two-day visit to discuss a range of topics, including the military operation. 

Moscow “advocates resolution of all issues through negotiations,” Bogdanov told TASS. He referred to the Astana talks, in which Turkey and Russia are guarantors, alongside Iran. 

Over the past several years, Turkish forces have carried out three cross-border military operations in Syria with the participation of the Ankara-backed SNA. These were Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, to expel the Islamic State (IS) from northern Aleppo; Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, against the YPG in Afrin and its environs in northwestern Aleppo; and Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, against the SDF. The 2019 operation ended with the SNA taking control of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakah countryside and Tal Abyad in the Raqqa countryside. 

On the ground, there are not sufficient indicators of a large-scale military operation, unlike the last three operations. No Turkish reinforcements have been monitored on the border with Syria or crossing into Syrian territory, with the exception of Ankara expanding air and artillery strikes against targets in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) areas. Some SNA factions have also announced “military maneuvers and trainings” in partnership with Turkish forces in northern Aleppo. 

This indicates that, for now, the Turkish escalation is “political more than an urgent escalation on the ground,” according to Wael Alwan, a researcher at the Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies. He cited a “lack of military indicators such as alertness, reconnaissance and the advance of offensive forces.” He did not rule out that this could change in the future, especially given weeks of Turkish shelling and escalation. 

Responding to that reading, Ömer Özkizilcik, a foreign policy and security analyst, stressed that Turkey is “quite serious” about “launching a new military operation against the YPG in Syria.” The issue is “considered a national security threat across the political spectrum in Turkey,” he said.

Regarding Turkish army deployment, Özkizilcik explained that compared to past operations, “fewer deployments and movements occur inside Turkey as Turkey has already deployed sufficient forces into Syria.” This would explain the absence of pictures of Turkish convoys heading to the border to participate in the new military operation. 

Syria Direct attempted to obtain comment from the SNA’s spokesman, Major Youssef al-Hamoud, as well as SNA commanders. They refused to comment because of a recently issued directive not to provide any information about the operation. 

Limits of Turkey’s operation

The announced Turkish operation is aimed at, according to Erdoğan, the Tal Rifaat and Manbij areas of northern Aleppo. But the movements of the SNA and US and Russian forces in the area indicate that other areas could be among Ankara’s targets, including the city of Kobani (Ain al-Arab). 

Kobani is strategically important compared to the Manbij and Tal Rifaat areas, since it is located on the border with Turkey. It separates the Turkish Peace Spring areas to the west and Euphrates Shield areas to the east. Taking control of Kobani would connect the two areas. 

Following the 2019 Peace Spring operation, under a Turkish-Russian agreement, the latter’s forces were deployed in Kobani alongside military groups belonging to the Syrian regime. In late March, Russian forces established a new military point in the village of Koberlak, in the SDF-controlled Kobani countryside, along the front lines with Turkish forces and the SNA. 

In May, local civilian and military sources told Syria Direct that US forces are working to repair the Kharab Iskl base east of Kobani, which they withdrew from in 2019. They also said US forces returned to the 17th Division base north of Raqqa and Tabqa airport in the province’s south. The reports coincided with Turkey’s threats to launch a military operation and the withdrawal of Russian forces from some points in Syria. 

Although Turkey could modify the areas targeted by its operation “according to some forms of understanding in Syria or due to other considerations,” Manbij and Tel Rifaat are the targets, Özkizilcik said. “Attacking Manbij would automatically reactivate American sanctions against Turkey and Tel Rifaat appears to be a relatively easier and more likely target,” he added. 

Since Turkey’s stated goal is to take complete control of a 30km border strip in Syria, all border cities are possible military targets for Ankara, including Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, and Tal Tamar, north of Hasakah. 

The expected Turkish operation is part of a larger Turkish project aimed at ensuring its national security by securing the southern border with Syria up to the Iraqi border. It also aims to dismantle the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—the political counterpart of the YPG—and thereby not allow the PKK to extend into Syria, according to researcher Alwan. 

Testing the SDF’s allies? 

When Turkish statements about the operation began, the SDF discounted any strategic change in the distribution and deployment of international guarantor powers in northern and eastern Syria. “The heating of the atmosphere and show by the Turkish state occupation’s forces is an attempt to undermine stability,” the SDF said in a May 23 press statement. It also described them as “attempts to revitalize IS remnants.” 

The spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Northern Democratic Brigade, Mahmoud Habib, sees Turkey’s goal from its statements as “a test of the seriousness of the stances of the ceasefire guarantor states by violating the agreement and continuing to bomb and use drones,” he told Syria Direct. Habib believes any “new occupation scenario” is unlikely. 

But this does not negate that “Erdoğan is waiting with bated breath for any weakness in confronting him and his occupationist ambitions, not only in Kobani, but [along] the entire border strip,” Habib said. He cautioned that “if Erdoğan is able to silence the guarantor countries and the Damascus government, he won’t back down until the entire border strip is included.”

For his part, YPG spokesperson Nuri Mahmoud characterized Turkey’s threats as an attempt to “overcome a suffocating political and economic crisis” in Turkey. The operation comes at a time when “Turkish society no longer desires such an authority and is looking for another solution,” he told Syria Direct

Within the SDF’s official response to Ankara’s threats, the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD)—the political arm of the SDF—issued a statement on May 26 saying that the international anti-IS coalition bears responsibility for preventing any possible military action in northern Syria. 

The General Commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, said on June 2 that the Turkish operation poses a “high risk” to northern Syria’s stability, and that the escalation would negatively impact the war against IS and create a humanitarian crisis. On Twitter, Abdi called on actors to “prevent any new tragedies” and “support de-escalation,” warning that the operation would “displace original inhabitants” of the area.

Facing these warnings, the SDF may be forced into a military confrontation in an unequal battle, or to lean on Damascus and Moscow. This is especially likely if the US does not take a firm position on the operation, as happened with Peace Spring in Hasakah and Raqqa and Olive Branch in Afrin, when the Turkish-backed SNA took control of SDF-held territory. 

At a time when Moscow’s attention is focused on the war against Ukraine, it may not be in a position to pressure Ankara to stop the operation. Russia may deal with a possible Turkish operation “with greater understanding than it would have a few months ago,” as Russian researcher Kirill Semeno, an expert at the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), told Syria Direct last month. 

Turkish researcher Özkizilcik said the Russian-Ukrainian war “may be of decisive effect” to Moscow. Russia reduced its presence in Syria and “is under heavy economic sanctions and has a high toll in the war in Ukraine,” he said. 

Given Turkey’s closure of its maritime straits and airspace to Moscow, Russia’s only possible supply line is “the air route all around Iran, Iraq, and eastern Syria to the Hmeimim airbase,” Özkizilcik said. This logistical line “cannot be sufficient in the case of an active escalation like 2020,” he added. 

Özkizilcik believes a resolute US stance on the operation is unlikely. “It appears illogical to disrupt relations with Turkey over YPG-held areas in Syria,” he said, while “the Ukraine war reminded Washington DC of the geopolitical importance of Turkey and the need to ensure harmony within NATO.” 

Handing over the area?

Although the SDF is opposed to the Assad regime and emphasizes federalism, which strongly contradicts the regime’s vision, the SDF and its political wing the MSD have not cut relations and talks with Damascus. These reached the extent of allowing Syrian government and Russian forces to enter SDF territory to stop the 2019 Peace Spring operation. 

As Turkish statements about an approaching military operation continued, Syrian regime military groups arrived on Wednesday to Qamishli, in the Hasakah countryside, and Manbij and Tel Rifaat in the Aleppo countryside, according to pro-regime Facebook pages. They are the SDF’s final option to limit or stop the Turkish operation. 

YPG spokesperson Nuri Mahmoud did not rule out allowing an expansion of regime forces’ deployment “on the entire border.” He noted that “this deployment does not mean government forces ruling or controlling territory, but rather just participating in repelling any aggression.” The previous deployment of regime forces in SDF areas was “a partial deployment, under full SDF supervision and continuous coordination with the Russians,” he said. 

In this context, Alwan downplayed the importance of regime forces entering the field. He emphasized the existence of Russian-Turkish coordination, and said “Turkey would not start any action without this coordination.” In his view, “regime forces will withdraw and leave the SDF to their fate.” 

Russia’s preoccupation with its war in Ukraine may be an opportunity for militias to enter the area under the wing of the Syrian regime. According to local opposition media, Iranian militias are preparing to send forces to SDF-controlled areas to confront Turkey’s military operation. 

Zaitun Agency reported this month that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard informed local members of its 47th Regiment it intended to send 50 fighters to the SDF lines of contact with SNA and Turkish forces. 

Those wishing to go to SDF areas were asked to register their names with the 47th Regiment commander, with financial rewards to be paid to volunteers, the outlet reported.

Iranian militias are not confirmed to have deployed alongside regime forces in SDF areas. But reports of that could be linked to a meeting between an Iranian delegation, Syrian regime officers and a notable of the Tayy tribe at Qamishli airport in Hasakah province this past March. The goal of the meeting was to establish an Iranian-funded military council to be composed of members of the region’s tribes. 

For Turkey, however, “only Russia matters,” Özkizilcik said. The regime and Iranian-backed militias are “an open target,” he added. “Their presence would only further motivate the Syrian National Army.” 

YPG spokesman Mahmoud stressed that the SDF does not seek “an attack or war.” But if war broke out, “we will deal with it in the framework of popular revolutionary war,” he said, relying on “our great experience in fighting the Turkish army and its mercenaries.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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