Limited Syria incursion seen as Erdogan’s most likely option
As the Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces gets under way, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces competing interests and demands.
Mr Erdogan needs to satisfy the millions of Turks who have been restlessly awaiting an operation against Syrian Kurdish militants. But he must also navigate mixed messages from the US president who, having ordered US troops to get out of the way of a Turkish operation, later said in a tweet that he would “obliterate” Turkey economically if it went “off limits”.
Soli Ozel, an expert on international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said the Turkish president had to show he could stand up to Mr Trump’s threats, without going too far. “To keep it at the rhetorical level is fine, but to get into a brawl with the US president is something I don’t think he desires,” he said. “He does not want to have a serious confrontation whereby Trump will take measures. We have bitter memories of last summer when Trump did a tweet and pushed the lira to 7.2 [against the dollar].”
Mr Erdogan has warned for years that he wants to attack the Syrian Kurdish militias — backed by the US but viewed by Turkey as terrorists — who control territory along his nation’s southern flank. He wants to disrupt their efforts to establish a semi-autonomous region on his doorstep, and has also pledged to turn the region into a “safe zone” where some of the 3.6m Syrian refugees living in Turkey could return or be resettled.
Despite the conflicting signals from Mr Trump, who on Tuesday repeated his warnings while also confirming a visit by Mr Erdogan to Washington next month, many analysts believe that the Turkish president had no choice but to order his armed forces to launch the long-promised assault.
Fighter jets signalled the start of the operation on Wednesday afternoon with bombing raids near the mixed Arab-Kurdish town of Ras al-Ayn, which lies just across the Turkish border. Later, Turkish forces reportedly pummeled the town of Tal Abyad, 100km to the west, with artillery fire. American troops had already been pulled out of the region.
The Turkish army will lead the assault, but much of the manpower will be provided by the new Turkish-backed Syrian National Army alliance of rebel fighters.
Although Turkish and Syrian media reported air raids as far east as towns near the Iraqi border, military experts said they expected Ankara’s initial focus would be limited to a relatively small area. “My educated guess is, the initial attack directions for ground formations will remain Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn,” said Can Kasapoglu, director of security and defence research at Edam, an Istanbul-based think-tank.
Such a contained operation might not break Mr Trump’s unspecified “limits”, but it could pose other challenges.
The Turkish military is the second-largest in Nato and has experience of two previous Syrian operations, as well as urban warfare against Kurdish militants on Turkish soil. But the group in the crosshairs, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has vowed to defend itself “at all costs”. Some experts believe that the SDF has anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that could pose a threat to Turkish troops.
It was not clear whether the US had given permission for Turkish jets to use the airspace over north-east Syria. The US controls this airspace because it leads the international coalition that is fighting Isis in that region.
On Monday, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported that the Pentagon has blocked Turkey’s access to joint surveillance and intelligence data. Any effort to block Turkey from using the airspace could cause setbacks for ground operations, experts say.
Some military analysts also warn about the dangers of “mission creep” given Mr Erdogan’s grand plan to create a Syrian safe zone roughly 370km wide and 32km deep. “Does Ankara have a clear-cut exit strategy?” asked Metin Gurcan, a defence analyst.
Other potential risks include retaliatory bombings by Kurdish militia in Turkish cities or the SDF striking a deal with Mr Assad — an idea floated by the group again in recent days — which would force Ankara to decide whether it wanted to fight the Syrian army, say analysts.
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Mr Erdogan may enjoy a bump in public support after launching an operation. But any short-term political gain could be outweighed if an offensive puts sustained pressure on an economy that is still recovering from last year’s currency crisis, which triggered a recession and rising unemployment.
After Mr Trump’s threats to inflict damage on the Turkish economy on Monday, the lira suffered its worst losses in six months, falling 2.2 per cent.
Shamaila Khan, the head of emerging market debt strategies at AllianceBernstein, said foreign investors — whose funds are crucial to the Turkish economy — would be hoping for any incursion to be limited. “If Turkey ends up doing a much more expansive operation that leads to [US] sanctions, that would create a fairly significant sell off in asset prices,” she said.
Ankara is still dogged by the risk of US congressional sanctions in response to its purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system. With a fierce backlash on Capitol Hill to Mr Trump’s decision on Syria in recent days, Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, warned that the risk of retaliatory measures had “not gone away”.
“When the first Kurd dies at the end of a Turkish tank tube, there’s going to be even more of an outcry here,” he said.