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Turkey's military goal in Syria

Serhat Erkmen
December 1, 2016

As Turkey's military mission in Syria, called Operation Euphrates Shield, enters its 100th day, soldiers have gained control of a swatch of northern Syria. But what are the operation's next steps and final goals?

Türkische Panzer in Syrien
Image: Reuters

The Free Syrian Army and the Turkish army gained control of nearly 1,820 square kilometers of territory in northern of Syria. The operation is currently concentrated around the "Islamic State" stronghold of al-Bab in Syria's northwest.

Serhat Erkmen, an international relations lecturer at the Ahi Evran University, writes about how the campaign will likely move forward.

What is Turkey's goal?

Since the day the operation began, Turkey has declared that it has two basic goals: To clear the border of terror groups like "Islamic State" (IS) and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to decrease the threat of terror against Turkey, and to prevent the formation of an area, north of Syria under the control of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Besides these two basic goals, reopening the area to settlement and creating a safe place for Syrians who have come to Turkey may also be discussed. However, this is not a primary goal, and it is something that has come up with developments in the operation.

Nahost-Experte Serhat Erkmen
Turkish operations in northern Syria are complicated and will take some time, Erkmen saidImage: privat

What stage is the operation in at the moment?

Clashes are concentrated around the town of al-Bab. After the Free Syrian Army (FSA) approached al-Bab on November 13, there have been violent clashes around the town. However, it's not right to think that the clashes are only between the FSA and IS. The YPG knows that if the FSA takes control of al-Bab, it will never be able to unite the cantons it declared in Syria. So, it has started advancing towards the town from the west over Afrin and from the east over Menbij. There have been ISIS-FSA-YPG clashes on two fronts. Some villages change hands after a short time in the control of one group. In the beginning, the clashes took place in areas that were far from the Syrian army. Lately, they've come much closer so the Syrian army has also been caught up in some of the clashes. That is why clashes get increasingly violent by the day. Compared to the start of the operation, we can say that clashes are more crucial and bloody now. 

What do the other players in the region think of Turkey's operation?

There is no country that directly and clearly supports Turkey's operation. In the beginning, the United States provided support. However,  US commanders have outright announced that they will not provide air support. They clearly state that they are uncomfortable with the Turkish army bombing the YPG. Furthermore, they see the Turkish advancement to Menbij as a great risk. Russia has silently been providing support. It has given up its threats of preventing Turkish planes from flying over Syria.

Türkei Angriff auf türkische Soldaten in Nordsyrien
Turkish troops were killed in an airstrike conducted by the Syrian armyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/IHA

In this sense, Russia not opposing Turkish air support of the operation may be construed as indirect support.  However, an attack by Syrian warplanes on a Turkish unit involved in the operation shows that balances could shift very easily. If you consider Russia's influence on the Syrian administration, as well as the influence it has on the base that launched the plane that attacked the Turkish unit, it seems very difficult that this was done without prior Russian knowledge. That is why some in Turkey view this as Russia sending an indirect message to Turkey. The approaches of two of the major players in the region show that external support for the operation is on very thin ice.

What does Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent statement that the Turkish army went into to Syria to end the Assad regime mean?

This is one of the most important statements made in recent days. However, it's also a very risky statement. In the international arena, it's possible to legitimize the operation within the lines of the war against terror. At the same time, in the domestic arena it has a 70 percent  support because of the war against terror. However, if the goal and scope of the operation changes - if Turkey changes the direction towards changing the regime in Syria - it will not be able to find the same support domestically or internationally. That is why it can be said Erdogan's statement is a response to Syria taking aim at Turkish soldiers and not an attempt at changing the operation's strategic goals.

Türkei Präsident Tayyip Erdogan Rede in Istanbul
Erdogan said the Turkish army's fighting in Syria is part of anti-terror operationsImage: Reuters/Presidential Palace/Murat Cetinmuhurdar

What will the next target in the operation be?

After gaining control of al-Bab, the operation will move towards Menbij. There's no question about that. However this may take some time, it may be difficult, but eventually that's the direction it will take. If control of al-Bab, doesn't cause a clash between the Syrian Army, the FSA and the Turkish army, the new target will be Manbij. However, in medium and long term, it may include Afrin as well. This will be a long and arduous process, but it seems necessary for Turkey to reach its final goal. Operation Euphrates Shield will be longwinded operation. If the balances don't push the results in a new direction, it will probably last a few more months.

Doç. Dr. Serhat Erkmen, is a lecturer at the Ahi Evran University in the  Department of International Relations and 21st Century Turkey Institute Center of Middle East and African research director.