THO’s Analysis of the Operation that Mobilized the Syria Equation and Accelerated the Political Process 

On August 24, 2016, the Turkish military launched Operation Euphrates Shield (Turkish: Fırat Kalkanı Operasyonu) with the intention of striking Daesh and Democratic Union Party (PYD) targets in northern Syria. The Turkish administration currently recognizes both as terrorist organizations. It furthermore stated that it is “determined to protect the territorial integrity of Syria,” which has been heavily compromised since the outbreak of its civil war in 2011. 

The September 12 implementation of a major ceasefire plan agreed to by the United States, Russia, Syria, and all other major parties involved with the exception of Daesh is cause for hope, but lingering uncertainties on the ground still remain.

On the Eve of the Intervention

Just a few days before the operation, a bombing of a wedding on August 20 killed 54 civilians and injured 94 in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep. It was only the latest in a string of suspected Islamist attacks in the country since it became more heavily susceptible to spillover from the Syrian conflict.

Based in northern Syria, the Kurdish nationalist PYD and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are seen by Ankara as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), based in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The Turks consider all three to be part of one violent terrorist network, however the U.S. and European Union officially only recognize the PKK as such.

While the PKK has often employed tactics similar to Daesh, such as its use of mostly female suicide bombers; the non-governmental human rights organization Amnesty International found that the PYD and YPG in northern Syria committed “attacks that amount to war crimes.” Amnesty International noted that while the majority of their victims are ethnic Turkmen and Arabs, they also submit other Kurds to home demolition and forced displacement, “a violation of international humanitarian law.” 

Euphrates Shield saw the Syrian border town of Jarablus captured from Daesh within hours by Turkish tanks and the support of at least “hundreds of fighters from Turkish-backed factions of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).” Daesh and PYD positions near the border were also shelled by artillery fire. Visiting Ankara, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden reiterated that the PYD “must move back across the Euphrates River,” and not maintain a presence west of it as per Turkish expectations. 

Different Priorities Among Allies

By August 30, U.S. Army General Joseph Votel confirmed that the PYD “are on the east side of the Euphrates River at this time. They have lived up to their commitment to us.” Speaking on Turkey’s contributions to regional security, he underlined that “Deeds matter, and what I’m seeing on the ground is that they remain very committed” to the fight against Daesh. The U.S. considers both Turkey and the PYD to be its allies in the region despite the animosity between the latter two. However, on September 7, the Turkish deputy prime minister complained that the PYD had not completely moved back east of the Euphrates, and the conflicting claims have not yet been resolved.

On September 11, Ankara’s state-run Anadolu Agency claimed that “the Turkish border with Syria was cleared Sunday of Daesh terrorists,” and in control of Turkish and FSA forces. The Turkish air force also struck PKK targets in northern Iraq. While the U.S. has, along with Turkey and its other coalition allies, continued to target Daesh, it and some others such as France and Germany do not approve of Turkish operations targeting the PYD and its affiliates. 

Although the U.S. and some other coalition countries disagree with aspects of Euphrates Shield, they have also not opposed the operation as a whole.  U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian said “It’s had no impact on our ability to continue to pressure Daesh and hammer the enemy across the battle space.” Despite this, it may be worth highlighting here that in terms of bilateral communications and prior notices, he also referred to “de-confliction” with Turkish military maneuvers and airstrikes rather than coordination. 

The PYD was also embraced by Russia after the Turkish administration ordered the downing of a Russian aircraft last November, which resulted in even more advanced Russian weaponry such as the S-400 SAM system being deployed to the Syrian-Turkish border. However, in the midst of Ankara’s attempts to repair their bilateral relations and the fact Euphrates Shield included aerial operations, it is safe to assume Turkey’s intervention in Syria was only made possible by the consent of Russia and President Vladimir Putin. It is not yet clear how this will change Russia’s relations with the PYD, but some media outlets supportive of the latter have already reflected negative sentiments toward the U.S. for not preventing the Turkish operation.

A proposed no-fly zone in northern Syria that the Turkish administration has insisted on for years is also still opposed in Washington and was never enthusiastically received by NATO. At the moment, the most Ankara can accomplish in this regard is a buffer zone in northern Syria to prevent attacks on Turkish territory by the various armed factions operating near its border. While Turkey will have to commit much of its own resources, many Syrian refugees, of whom there are nearly three million in Turkey, may have someplace to return to if a certain degree of security can be established.

Contrary to many assumptions, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has very close relations with the current Turkish administration, whose support for it has been a boon for KRG oil exports and a means with which it can compete with the central Iraqi government authorities in Baghdad. When the town of Ayn al-Arab in Syria, often referred to by Kurds as Kobani, was under siege by Daesh in 2014, the PYD long opposed assistance from KRG, which it considered a rival. It eventually consented to a limited contribution of the latter’s “Peshmerga” troops, who were provided transportation to the battle by Ankara through Turkish territory. It remains to be seen whether this sort of cooperation will be adversely affected by recent developments in northern Syria.

Hostility Still Hinders Ankara and Damascus Dialogue

While some were initially expecting that the Turkish administration’s attempts to improve relations with Russia and Iran would lead to much more cooperation in Syria, on September 8 the Turkish foreign minister expressed at a press conference with his Saudi Arabian counterpart his opposition to President of Syria Bashar Assad being part of any hypothetical political transition process in the country. 

This objection may prove an obstacle for a planned extension of Euphrates Shield further south toward the city of Manbij. President Assad and a large portion of Syrian society consider the FSA to be an illegitimate armed faction or terrorist organization—similar to how many Syrians and Turks alike view Daesh and the PYD. FSA units, who are considered by some to have fickle allegiances, have also been accused of committing war crimes, including against those of the minority Alawite faith. Although the Turkish intervention seems to have been allowed by Syria’s ally Russia, the Syrian Foreign Ministry has stated that “Fighting terrorism on Syrian territory from any side should have been coordinated with the Syrian government,” further suggesting that Daesh is only being replaced by other terrorist entities.

Saudi Arabia’s stated moral support for Euphrates Shield raises further questions regarding how the Syrian government, at sharp odds with both Ankara and Riyadh, will address a Turkish military presence on its territory during the recently-implemented ceasefire. A worrying development, in the early hours of September 13, a mortar round exploded on Turkish territory. The Turkish military believed its origin to be from a Syrian government-held region across the border, and returned artillery fire. How the two neighbors accommodate each other and communicate during the coming period may very well determine the viability of long-term peace in both countries and the region.

As of September 15, according to Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin, currently the administration “does not have military plans regarding Raqqa.” The Daesh stronghold in Syria lies further away from the Turkish border than other cities that might be included within the scope Euphrates Shield, and it may call for an intervention by the coalition rather than unilateral action. Russian and Syrian cooperation would also be instrumental, as the long-awaited expulsion of Daesh from Raqqa may very well mean a new chapter for the Syrian conflict. At the moment, it is speculated that Turkey’s coming third phase of Euphrates Shield will involve another push south to strike Daesh-held sectors of east Aleppo.

A post-war political process that can be agreed upon by all the major parties involved would most likely hasten a major decrease in violence in both Syria and Iraq, but consensus will be difficult to achieve if the more influential actors on both sides fail to offer any compromises for the greater good.

K. Kartari, Coordinator
Turkish Heritage Organization