Fear and Loathing in the Levant: Turkey Changes its Syria Policy and Strategy
Turkey’s strategic position in northern Aleppo and the Manbij pocket has collapsed, forcing the Turkish government to recalibrate its Syria policy. This shift in Turkish policy began in June 2015, when Turkish officials began to speak openly about the need for a safe zone between the Euphrates River and the opposition held city of Azaz. This policy proposal differed from Turkey’s previous insistence on a comprehensive no-fly-zone over all of Syria, enforced with American, Turkish, and other allied aircraft. This policy was meant to address Turkey’s two top security threats: the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Islamic State (ISIL).
The Turkish government is now pursuing a bifurcated approach to the Syrian conflict. This dramatic shift in policy is a departure from Turkey’s previous efforts to dictate the course of the war in northern Syria and is reflective of Turkish concerns about this latest phase of the Syrian conflict, including Turkey’s overarching fear of Kurdish political and military empowerment. Ankara is focused on putting military pressure on the Syrian regime south of Aleppo city, while making taking steps to hedge against the likelihood that the PYD will eventually link territory taken from ISIL west of Manbij with Kurdish-controlled territory south of Marea.
Turkey intends to establish a “friendly” strip of territory inside the Manbij pocket controlled by an Arab and Turkmen coalition, perhaps extending as far as 15 kilometers into Syria from the border. This area is intended to keep the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of rebel groups dominated by the PYD’s militia, off of Turkey’s border, as the group continues a westward offensive with American support against ISIL.
The Idlib Offensive: Putting Pressure on Assad
This policy has deepened Turkish dependence on Salafi groups while at the same time driving a recalibration of Ankara’s approach to the Bashar al-Assad question. The Turkish government blames the Syrian regime for much – if not all – of the problems in Syria, including the empowerment of the PYD and the appeal of the Islamic State. This thinking underpins the Turkish government’s frequent calls for a “comprehensive strategy” to defeat ISIL, which in their view requires the defeat of the regime before ISIL can be forced from Syria. The Turkish government has never completely ruled out negotiations with the regime and has, since 2011, pushed for Assad to step down, in favor of a Turkish-backed successor.
This new leader would, in turn, have to be acceptable for the plethora of Turkish backed rebel groups in the north, which would presumably be integrated into a future Syrian army tasked with conducting anti-ISIL operations. To achieve this outcome, Turkey favors robust intervention on behalf of the opposition, including a direct Western led military campaign in support of Turkish backed groups. Turkey has taken the lead in implementing an element of this policy: namely the direct arming of various groups, from its territory, from the outset of the Syrian civil war. Controversially, Turkey has also forged close ties with Ahrar al Sham, a Salafi militant group that advocates for a governing structure similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ahrar works closely with Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, in Idlib and as part of the Turkish and Saudi supported Jaysh al Fateh military coalition.
While tensions between Ahrar and Nusra do arise, the groups are symbiotic actors in Idlib, and together form the core of Turkey’s most potent military partner in northern Syria. Jaysh al Fateh is still a key partner for Turkish efforts in Idlib, particularly with its recent offensive south of Aleppo city, which now threatens to encircle the regime in the city. This offensive directly challenges the interests of the Syrian regime’s two most important patrons, Iran and Russia, both of which have deployed manpower in the area, as part of a previous regime led offensive. The Russian Air Force has struck targets in the area, while Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hezbollah, and various Shia militias are present with regime forces. Despite this, Jaysh al Fateh continues to make gains, perhaps exposing the limitations of a Russian Air Force near totally reliant on unguided munitions, and therefore not able to conduct precision strikes on advancing targets.
The Assad Question
In September 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the press that his government was prepared to accept a political solution, wherein Assad could remain in office for six months after agreeing to step down. This policy did not represent a significant change from Ankara’s previous support for the 2012 Geneva communiqué, but did differ from Turkey’s previous insistence that Assad step down immediately upon reaching an agreement for a transition. Erdogan further articulated his working assumption about Assad’s intentions to create a “boutique state” for himself and his allies, presumably along Syria’s coast, and with Russian backing.
Turkey views the break-up of the Syrian state as a serious threat, owing to the likelihood that such an event would entail the creation of a Kurdish federal zone along much of the border. This creates a conflicting incentive structure for Turkish policymakers, particularly with concurrent American-led actions to defeat the Islamic State. The U.S. strategy to defeat ISIL remains narrowly defined, and focused on empowering local actors, backed by special operations forces and American air power, to take territory from the caliphate. In Syria, the United States has partnered closely with the SDF and YPG, a strategy that has enabled the groups to make considerable gains since fall 2015. The Syrian Kurds, however, have made clear that they prefer a decentralized Syrian state, modeled on the concept of democratic autonomy. This political structure is based on the work of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has laid out a vision for extreme decentralization, based on consultative, co-led (with a male and female leadership structure) local councils in areas under Kurdish control.
The PYD has used its military gains to install this model in areas taken, which is creating facts on the ground for a longer term political outcome that is at odds with Ankara’s security and national interests. At the same time, Turkish policymakers are now changing their calculations about Assad’s ability to maintain power in Syria. Turkey remains frustrated with Washington’s refusal to enact regime change in Syria, and at the disconnect between the U.S. led military campaign against ISIL and concurrent American supported diplomatic efforts to negotiate a transition.
For these reasons, Turkey is recalibrating its longer-term options vis-à-vis the Assad regime and its most powerful backer, Russia. Turkish-Russian relations have collapsed since the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber in November 2015. Russian sanctions have hurt the Turkish tourism industry, while the concurrent resurgence of PKK/Turkish government violence has also contributed to a large drop in visitors to Turkey each year.
This has created dual incentives to repair relations with Russia, while also exploring ways to hedge against potential regime survival. In mid-June, Erdogan sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a letter for Russia’s National Day and has spoken publicly about the need reestablish good relations. At the same time, an unnamed Turkish official told Reuters about a shared interest: the prevention of Kurdish autonomy.
The Turkish government is unlikely to back away from its policy that Assad must leave at the end of a six-month transition. Instead, Turkey is working to put pressure on the regime militarily in Aleppo, while at the same time quietly reaching out to explore ways potential security synergies regardless of Assad’s position atop the Syrian government. This approach is a significant narrowing of Turkish goals in Syria, consistent with Ankara’s reading of the course of the diplomatic and military efforts to deal with Assad and fight ISIL. Turkey still believes that these policies are at odds with one another, but has few options to change the course of the events. And thus, it is making policy to mitigate the fall-out, including the floating of a trial balloon to work with the regime against a common enemy.
Buffering Against a Contiguous Rojava
Turkish efforts in the Manbij pocket are now ISIL focused. Turkish artillery strike ISIL position daily, reportedly as part of a broader effort to enable Arab advances along the Turkish Syrian border. This policy, as described in the Turkish press, was initially meant to be far more ambitious, and entail the use of these forces to clear ISIL from the Manbij pocket. The various rebel groups active in the area, however, are weak, have divided command structures, and have struggled to take territory from ISIL. Turkey has worked to unite these rebels for years, but its efforts have not succeeded.
The United States has pressed ahead with an SDF led operation, beginning with the taking of Manbij. The United States has been engaged in quiet diplomacy with Turkey for months before the operation, in order to reassure the Turkish government that the bulk of the forces that would “hold” territory taken from ISIL in the pocket would be Arab forces. Washington was also concerned about a possible Turkish ground incursion, and therefore went about preventing this to forestall the risk of a NATO ally clashing with the U.S. backed SDF. These diplomatic efforts have been successful. The SDF led operation has managed to take significant territory from ISIL in and around Manbij (the city itself remains in ISIL control, but is surrounded). Erdogan and the Turkish government have not attacked the operation publicly and, most importantly, the Turkish military has not intervened.
Projecting forward, the Turkish government will likely seek to keep the SDF off its border in the Manbij pocket. To do so, Ankara may look to the Arab rebels it is giving support to in the area to continue their eastward push along the border. If successful, this approach could form a small buffer zone, wherein “friendly” rebel groups to Turkey occupy the territory along the border, while the SDF – and its YPG allies – have a southern corridor, south of the border, that could, eventually, connect Manbij with PYD controlled Efrin. The United States supports this approach as evidenced by its continued military support for the rebel groups in Marea/Azaz, paving the way for a tactical compromise about this next phase of the anti-ISIL fight.
Turkey Narrows its Goals
The changes to Turkey’s Syria policy are a result of the collapse of Turkey’s position in northern Aleppo. Ankara is thus forced to change aspects of its policies to account for the continued presence of the regime, as well as the growing threat from Kurdish/SDF expansion in the Manbij pocket. At the same time, Idlib remains the focal point of Ankara’s military approach to the Syrian conflict. This has intensified Turkish reliance on groups like Ahrar al Sham and its umbrella group, Jaysh al Fateh.
This bifurcated policy does not drop the ultimate goal of regime change in Damascus, but is instead recognition of Ankara’s inability to directly shape events along the border. Turkey is now reacting to events on the ground and hedging against a set of bad options along the border. Fear of Kurdish entrenchment is forcing Ankara to reconsider its approach to the Syrian conflict, particularly in the Manbij pocket. Similarly, Turkey’s inability to seriously alter American policy also plays a factor in Turkish decision-making, although U.S. policymakers do seek to ameliorate Turkish security concerns about the longer-term ramifications of the counter-ISIL mission.
Turkey will still seek to shape the outcome of the opposition’s offensives in Idlib and south of Aleppo city. But in other parts of the country, Turkey’s interests are being directly challenged, with Ankara having little power to stop events that it deems to be a long-term security risk.
Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.