Ankara raised the prospect last weekend of a military operation to create a buffer zone along its Syrian frontier. While Turkey is officially part of a 60-nation coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), this military initiative would instead be focused on a different threat: the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (PYD) in Syria.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the PYD has seized many predominantly Kurdish cities in northern Syria along the Turkish border. The emergence of ISIS and the resulting military support from the international anti-ISIS coalition, however, opened the door for the PYD to expand beyond predominantly Kurdish territories. After capturing the key border town of Tal Abyad from ISIS on June 16, the PYD is now poised to attack the jihadists in nearby Jarabulus. By seizing the town, the PYD would be closer to connecting the several cantons it currently controls along the border, thereby increasing the prospects of an independent Kurdistan emerging within Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed on Saturday to never allow a Kurdish state to be established along Turkey’s borders. Turkey considers the PYD the Syrian wing of its own separatist Kurds, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – a designated terrorist group in Turkey. To preempt PYD’s expansion into ISIS-controlled Jarabulus, the Turkish government is reportedly considering several options, from targeted bombardment to a full-scale cross-border ground operation to establish a buffer zone. Bombarding ISIS targets would be complemented by Turkish material aid to non-PYD Syrian rebels fighting ISIS to the west of Jarabulus.
The Turkish army, however, is wary of any confrontation with its Syrian counterpart and hesitant to deploy into Syria unless Turkish citizens are directly threatened. The military is also worried about the legality of providing covert logistical support, noting that several rebel groups fighting ISIS are also designated by Turkey and the U.S. as terrorist groups and should therefore not receive Ankara’s support.
Meanwhile ISIS has also been making preparations of its own against a Turkish assault, raising the difficulty of an incursion into its territory. On Monday, a video emerged showing ISIS militants planting mines and digging trenches along the border in possible anticipation of a Turkish advance. Another concern for Turkey is blowback from the PKK in the event of military action against the PYD. A senior PKK official stated on Monday that the group would declare war on Turkey if it tries to intervene against the Kurdish fighters in Syria.
After its National Security Council meeting on Monday, Turkey appeared to table the intervention scenarios for now, instead focusing efforts on strengthening border control (on Tuesday, the armed forces sent reinforcements to several border towns). Additionally, the council emphasized Turkey’s concerns of “demographic shifts in the region” – referring to the long-running allegations of the PYD’s “ethnic cleansing” of non-Kurds in territories it controls – leaving the door ajar for a later intervention.
Ankara’s focus on containing the Kurds – whom most anti-ISIS coalition partners view as valued allies in fighting ISIS – threatens to alienate its coalition partners. Those partners are already frustrated by Turkey’s policy of lending tacit and even active support to a wide array of Syria’s anti-government forces, many of which have an Islamist bent. The PYD forces have acted as the U.S.’ best ally on the ground in Syria, having coordinated airstrikes against ISIS in the four-month-long battle for Kobani. With the coalition struggling to find Syrian rebel forces worthy of its support, it is unlikely to back a Turkish effort to counter the PYD’s advance against ISIS given the Kurdish group’s success thus far. This may be one reason the U.S. has already expressed opposition to Turkey’s buffer zone plans.
On the other hand, if Turkey chose to only bombard ISIS positions along its border without a ground offensive, it may have the opposite of the intended effect, and merely soften ISIS defenses for a PYD advance. This is why Turkey hopes to combine fire support with lethal aid to non-PYD rebels to the west of the proposed buffer zone. But given that these rebels remain on the defense against ISIS, while the PYD is already advancing on Jarabulus in the east, it is unlikely that they will be able to match the Kurds’ momentum and reach the town.
The larger question is why Turkey would move into Syria now, when it did not move against other ISIS border positions, such as Tal Abyad, before the PYD had seized them. In fact, Turkey has unsuccessfully lobbied foreign powers to intervene in Syria for four years, while at the same time refusing to endanger its military by carrying out the job on its own, or even contributing to the coalition’s airstrikes. A unilaterally declared operation in Syria now would be out of sync with coalition efforts, and even complicate Turkey’s ties with other rebel groups fighting alongside the PYD against ISIS.
Turkey’s opposition to PYD expansion, contrasted with its earlier inaction against ISIS’s growth along its border, underscores that Ankara remains out of step with the U.S.-led coalition. Nevertheless, the military options under consideration are unlikely to reach even Turkey’s own desired outcomes. Advancing into Syria now will likely further isolate Ankara from the coalition and complicate the alliance’s overall goal of bolstering a more moderate indigenous force that could defeat and ultimately replace ISIS.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Patrick Megahan is a research analyst and manages MilitaryEdge.org.