On October 30, 2021 TEVIN organization published a research entitled "Will we witness a new Turkish military operation in north and east Syria?" where the organization ruled out any Turkish military operation as a result of Turkish isolation at the time and the tension of the internal political situation, in addition to the deterioration of the economic situation there.
Several months later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his threats against north and east Syria's region, which had stopped since the administration of the US President Joe Biden came to power, wishing to end the Syrian crisis through diplomatic means and economic sanctions.
Erdogan got too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his many regional interventions and the deteriorating economic conditions pushed the US and the West to curb Turkish foreign policy in many issues, including Syrian issue. However, soon Turkey returned to occupy an important position after the Russian invasion of Ukraine because of its geopolitical location which overlooks the Black Sea. It also returned to threaten on various fronts, which seems at first glance random, but in fact it is a solid strategy.
Through this research, we seek to shed light on the Turkish strategy and its aspirations, and to analyze international reactions regarding it, in addition to local public opinion.
What does the Turkish government want?
The game of biting the fingers means that each player puts his finger in the mouth of the other and starts the mutual bite. Of course, the one who suffers first is considered defeated. This is the case of the negotiations that the AKP government is now engaged in with the international states which are involved directly and indirectly in the Syrian conflict. Public positions and statements are clearly visible. There is nothing wrong with it, as all parties revealed their cards and put them on the table.
1. New settlements
The Turkish plan to resettle two million Syrians in northern Syria came ahead of the Sixth Brussels Conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, in which the international community pledged nearly 6.4 billion euros for 2022, and the EU allocated three billion euros to Syrian refugees in Turkey from 2021 to 2024. The total aid provided in favor of Turkey reached more than nine billion euros. The provided funds directly enter into the Turkish state treasury, from which they are used to support refugees, which makes it difficult for the EU to track how the money is spent and to ensure that its funds are not used to carry out demographic change operations. Throughout the years of the Syrian crisis, the EU position has been weak in the face of Turkish blackmails regarding the refugee issue, as long as it plays its role in preventing the flow of refugees towards Europe.
The idea of resettling two million refugees needs to go through a new military operation to increase Turkish expansion and occupy more Syrian lands. The Turkish-occupied areas in northern Syria (Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab, Tel Abyad/Girê Spî, and Ras al-Ain/Serê Kaniyê), cannot accommodate this number of refugees due to the deterioration of the security situation, and it no longer has the ability to absorb other numbers because the processes of demographic change have taken place on a large scale and this would lead to new conflicts between the old and new settlers, especially since the economic situation in the areas occupied by Turkey is very bad, and the many clashes among armed factions to control economic resources is a good example.
Perhaps the situation in the regions of Serêkaniyê and Afrin is a clear evidence of the processes of demographic change, as Synergy/Hevdestî organization indicated that the Turkish occupation of Ras al-Ain/Serêkaniyê and Girê Spî regions led to:
Displacing about 175.000 people.
Less than 15% of Ras al-Ain/Serêkaniyê and its countryside have returned to their homes after the Turkish occupation.
More than 2.000 displaced families from other Syrian regions were settled in the houses of the original inhabitants.
More than 55 women and children of ISIS militants (mostly Iraqis) were settled in houses they had seized.
More than 5.500 houses and more than 1.200 shops were seized, in addition to evacuating 55 villages of their original inhabitants and more than a million and a half acres of lands.
2. Electoral votes and funds
This resettlement process would relieve opposition's pressure on the AKP and win public opinion in preparation for the upcoming Turkish elections, especially after the intensification of hate speech against Syrian refugees. For Erdogan and his party, the deportation of two million refugees means two million electoral votes.
There are economic goals behind Turkey’s pursuit of occupying more Syrian lands which are represented first by distracting public opinion from the economic collapse. This economy is going through its worst phase in history, as the annual inflation rate reached %69.97 last April, and the trade deficit recently jumped to 24.5 billion. Also, Ankara's reaching an agreement with Russia and Ukraine regarding sea crossings would lead to the transit of millions of tons of Ukrainian and Russian grain, which might contribute to reviving the stalled economy.
3. Arms trade
Turkey considers Finland and Sweden as hotbeds of terrorists, with arguments related to communications with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and supporters of the US-based preacher Fethullah Gülen. Turkish media reported that Turkey submitted requests of the extradition of “33 PKK and FETÖ terrorists” to Finland and Sweden in recent years, but so far to no avail.
However, easing restrictions on arms exports to Turkey is a primary goal for Turkey. After the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in 2019, Finland, Sweden, Germany and other European countries announced that they would not export any weapons to Turkey that could be used in Syria.
For more than a year, there have been attempts by several parties, including the US, to find mechanisms for trade exchange between northwestern and northeastern Syria, but the Turkish government is not happy with these attempts. Therefore, the Turkish operation and its objection to the US' license No. 22, came to scare companies and investors into carrying out any projects in northeastern Syria and to prevent investments in them.
All of the abovementioned is in the interest of the AKP government’s strategy in implementing its plans in the processes of demographic change and separating the Kurds of Turkey from those of Syria by building a human separation wall of the Sunni Arabs and the Turkmen loyal to it, and part of the wall has been implemented in each of Afrin Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain. According to the latest report issued by Syrians for Truth and Justice Organization (STJ) entitled "Housing Settlements in Afrin: Demographic Engineering or IDP Housing Projects?" It documented Turkey's demographic change processes, "Several factions within the opposition’s Syrian National Army (SNA) have been building one of the largest human settlements in Afrin region. The settlement is warranted by the Turkish authorities and is designated for housing SNA fighters and their families in Afrin, which has historically identified as a Syrian Kurdish-majority region."
Reactions and international positions
Public statements by US officials reject any military escalation by any party, as five goals of US policy in Syria have been identified:
Expand humanitarian access: Support the removal of barriers to help meet humanitarian needs across Syria.
Accountability and Justice: Efforts and support to hold Assad regime accountable for its gross violations of human rights and international rules.
Political process: Laying the groundwork for generating momentum towards resolving the Syrian crisis and generating it.
Enduring defeat of al-Qaeda and ISIS: Maintaining the US military presence and partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to maintain pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Ceasefire support: Supporting international and/or local agreements to reduce levels of violence.
Since the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, American understandings with Russia and other players such as Turkey have focused on maintaining de-escalation. This trend has continued until now in response to the abovementioned goals, and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continuation of the de-escalation has become even more necessary.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has distanced itself from the Western camp and hosted negotiations between Russia and Ukraine as a neutral mediator, but all Turkish positions seem to be in Russia's interest, which shows a clear bias to Moscow, as it opposes the joining of Sweden and Finland to NATO, and refusing and not participating in the economic sanctions on Russia.
On the other hand, Russia is not inclined to reward Turkey in Syria for its biased position towards its invasion of Ukraine, because the military escalation would affect the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, Russia does not rule out making a deal with Turkey if it can help Russia circumvent Western economic sanctions through the sea corridor in the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine in exchange for allowing a military operation in the town of Tel Rifaat, which is under Russian influence, and possibly the city of Manbij.
In order to gauge public opinion, we took the viewpoints of a specific sample of recent Turkish threats and asked them two specific questions.
What do you think about the recent Turkish threats? Is Turkey serious?
It turns out to us that Erdogan is serious about his threats, as he has implemented his threats more than once, even if it takes a long time, but in the end he implements them, and we were previously assured that the US is not a serious ally that can guarantee the security of the region.
Erdogan is trying, through his threats, not to allow the region’s economy to grow, as some signs of hope appeared after the lifting sanctions on northeastern Syria through the arrival of international companies to invest, but in light of these threats, no company will make such an investment for sure.
With information received about a Russian withdrawal from some Syrian areas, it seems that Erdogan's eye is heading to Shahba region (Aleppo northern countryside where Afrin IDPs are taking shelter) because it is practically under Russian influence, which will easily abandon it in exchange for gains in the Ukrainian issue, such as Turkey's obstruction of Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
What about the position of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS?
Their positions will be similar to those in Afrin and Serêkaniyê, just a threat, but in the end, they will not cut ties with Turkey.
The Ukrainian situation is much more important than that in northeastern Syria for the US, and it will certainly concede here to obtain supportive positions from Turkey regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war.
The US will not allow Turkey to launch this operation because it will assure everyone that it is not a reliable ally, and this will damage its reputation more after the damage it sustained as a result of its exit from Afghanistan and allowing the Taliban to control the government.
I think they will only denounce Erdogan because he has leverage, such as refusing Sweden and Finland to join NATO. He can also pressure Qatar to refuse to export gas to Europe.
The situation will be ambiguous because we still do not know the reason for the US decision to reopen its base in Kharab Ashq in Kobani countryside.
Any new military operation will undermine the efforts to fight terrorism led by the Islamic State Organization (ISIS), which benefited from the security defect caused by the "Peace Spring" military operation in 2019, and Turkey's control areas have become a safe haven for planning and carrying out terrorist attacks on the SDF and Global Coalition areas. The most prominent indication of the resurgence of ISIS activity was the attack on al-Sina'a Prison in the city of Hasakah on January 20, 2022.
The military operation would affect the agreement that US former Vice President Mike Pence reached on October 17, 2019 with Turkey, which stipulated a 5-day suspension of the Turkish military operation for the withdrawal of the SDF from the proposed safe zone south of the Turkish border. It will also affect the agreement signed on October 22, 2019, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to extend the ceasefire for an additional 150 hours in order for the SDF to complete its withdrawal 30 km away from the border area, as well as from the town of Tel Rifaat and the city of Manbij. The agreement also included conducting joint patrols between Russia and Turkey 10 km from the Syrian side of the border, with the exception of the city of Qamishli.
Recently, it has been observed that soft policy has been used to return refugees, whether by offering them temptations or by restricting them from a legal and economic point of view. We have witnessed several deportations to Syria for various reasons and pretexts. The Turkish Anadolu news agency reported that the Turkish authorities deported 28.581 “illegal” immigrants. The reasons for deportation varied, including entering the country in an irregular manner, violating entry visas or residence permits, or forging official papers, in addition to engaging in practices that violate the law and violate the public security. According to the Turkish authorities, since 2016, about 2.616.000 foreigners have been prevented from entering the country, according to the agency.
It seems that Russia’s approval of a new Turkish military operation in Tel Rifaat and Manbij is possible given its desire to reward Turkey for siding with it in the Ukrainian war at the expense of the West, especially if Turkey can help Russia circumvent economic sanctions by opening sea corridor. In the process, we are faced with two large antagonistic regions, western Euphrates and eastern Euphrates, and this would undermine efforts to reduce escalation more than before.
The US and its allies are the only ones able to stop Turkey from implementing its threats, not only in compliance with its promises to the SDF or in line with its strategic objectives mentioned above, but also in order to avoid a new humanitarian catastrophe that will lead thousands of Syrians to be victims, especially the displaced people of Afrin, Nubl and al-Zahraa who were forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of similar deals.
Committed to protecting human rights and preventing the processes of demographic change that it previously allowed without doing anything, the UN must not allow any new military operation whatever its motives were. The Syrians need a quick political solution and an improvement in economic conditions, and they need to combat hate speech which has become a prominent feature of the system of governance in Turkey towards the Kurds, and to prevent tyrants from tampering with the future of its peoples and the future of its neighbors.