After days of deployment and preparation, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) entered Syria last week and initiated the Idlib operation. Daily Sabah spoke with Dr. Murat Yeşiltaş, the director of security studies at Ankara's Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), to learn the reasons for the operation and to delve deeper into the challenges it poses, as well as Turkey's expectations.
Yeşiltaş said that the spillover of the Syrian civil war has harmed Turkey the most and therefore Turkey foresaw a similar possibility in Idlib, thus it launched the operation to prevent another humanitarian crisis.
Underlining that Turkey aims to facilitate stability and that the Idlib operation could be defined as a "peace enforcement" operation, Yeşiltaş also said that Turkey is now covering the southern parts of Afrin. He said that, therefore, the PKK presence in the region will sever its ties with the outside world.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that singular operations will never be enough in eliminating the PKK entirely. He added that he predicts Turkey will inevitably target the PKK's Syrian branches the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin.
Regarding the remarks of outgoing U.S. Ambassador John Bass about Daesh attacks in Turkey, the SETA director said that Bass's statement implied threats. He underlined that the reason there has not been terrorist attacks on Turkish soil is related with Turkey's Daesh strategy becoming functional rather than cooperation with the U.S.
Why did Turkey feel the need to launch an operation in Idlib?
There are several reasons. At first, Russia, Iran and Turkey had different approaches in Syria; however, we are seeing that these differences are dissipating. Even though the countries continue to support different groups in the Syrian crisis, after the U.S.'s departure from this matter, so to speak, a consensus between the countries were achieved. In other words, these actors have a real grip on the field.
Considering that Russia and Iran are acting together with the Syrian regime, Turkey is a lonely actor. Because of this support, the regime has regained its military superiority. This was first revealed with the fall of Aleppo; the vulnerability of the opposition forces was made apparent. Moreover, it showed that countries of the region were having issues in supporting them. This was a lesson learned by Turkey.
Turkey regards the Idlib issue according to this lesson; usage of force in Syria has a price for Turkey. Conflict spillover, thus being unable to contain the human, military, security, political, economic issues of the crisis to where it emerged and its spread to neighboring countries, has harmed Turkey the most. Turkey foresaw the similar possibility in Idlib and therefore brought it to the attention of other countries in Astana. Turkey does not want to suffer from another humanitarian crisis. This is essentially why the operation was launched.
So, Turkey launched the operation to prevent another refugee influx on its soil?
There is a considerable concentration of population in this region, especially after Aleppo's fall. According to U.N. figures, 500,000-600,000 people have immigrated to Idlib and the city's population is around two million now. It is the last stand of the opposition forces, if we disregard cities in the south; Russia and the Syrian regimes possible punitive actions might create a new humanitarian crisis. Turkey launched this operation to prevent this from happening, as all of these people are not terrorists or radicals. For this reason, Turkey proposed to declare the city as a de-escalation zone.
How can Turkey achieve this?
In order to declare Idlib as a de-escalation zone, the armed groups within the region should not be recognized or listed as terrorist organizations. Turkey offered a resolution by suggesting differentiating radicals from non-radicals through discussions and negotiations. Turkey could never accept collective punishment and therefore always kept Idlib on the negotiation table; as a result of its effort, such a decision was taken in Astana.
Turkey observed that organizations like the Nusra Front and Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controlling significant parts of the city. Turkey wanted to push back these organizations and enable moderate armed opposition that are closer to Turkey to gain more ground, especially to a position that would be acknowledged by Russia and Iran along with the international community. For this reason, an operation was inevitable.
Another reason for the operation is Turkey's need to gain ground in Syria. From 2014 onwards, Turkey has been facing a Syrian crisis that it could be more active in. Turkey has the opportunity to create a platform that could be managed with the joint military and political efforts.
As this is a military operation result of a consensus, for the first time in the Syrian crisis, rival actors are acting in the same direction. If HTS is kept away from this process, this operation will allow the region to be legitimized by the regime. Thus Bashar Assad regime, which deemed all armed opposition as terrorist organizations, will legitimize this military opposition with the support of Russia and Iran. This is beneficial for Turkey.
Turkey's national security is also the case in this situation. We see the PKK presence in Tal Rifaat limiting Turkey's area of influence. It is expected that Free Syrian Army (FSA) supported by Turkey to enter Idlib and reach the zone liberated with Operation Euphrates Shield (OES), surrounding PKK elements in Afrin. This does not mean Turkey will launch an operation in Afrin; this is possible militarily. However, the strategic and political consequences of such an action will prevent Turkey from doing that.
Turkey is facing a crucial process here. HTS and the Nusra Front do not want to clash with Turkey, while Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) also does not want to have conflicts with these two organizations. Meanwhile, the HTS is concerned about local actors siding with Turkey. In the last couple of months, 5,000-6,000 HTS militants have defected to the FSA. If this also occurs in other regions, it will cause the HTS to lose control. The HTS is afraid of such a situation and is avoiding direct conflict with Turkey.
Another issue is Turkey's consensus with Russia. All armed opposition, including the FSA, perceives Russia as a hostile force. Turkey seemingly collaborating with Russia is a concern for these groups. There is a prominent transitivity in the region; a faction might be discomforted by this issue and join a larger faction working against you. There was a similar situation in Operation Euphrates Shield.
Before the Idlib operation was launched, many were expecting an operation in Afrin. Have Turkey's priorities in Syria shifted?
Actually, they have not shifted. The PKK's presence is related with Turkey's engagement to the Syrian crisis. Therefore, Turkey situating on the south of Afrin will facilitate any operation against the PKK. This does not mean Turkey's priorities have changed. Looking at the map, Afrin borders Turkey from three sides: north, west and east. With the operation to Idlib, Turkey is now covering the southern parts of Afrin. Therefore, you are preparing a strong base for a possible operation against the PKK that will sever its ties with the outside world.
What's the next step in the Idlib operation?
It depends on the HTS's response to Turkey. The ultimate goal of the operation is to eliminate the HTS's influence in Idlib, or if possible, to transform it. The main challenge is how it will be achieved. There are various scenarios; the leading scenario is to change the name of this group and render it moderate. Turkey is the most important country that could have this kind of influence over this group. This is not a short-term process, of course. Transformation of this group is aimed; it is one of the best-case scenarios. The conflict will be minimized and the HTS will eventually surrender, seeing that it is unable to maintain a presence. Turkey will seize control, while the group becomes increasingly moderate. As I have said, this is the best-case scenario.
If this is not possible, Turkey will face the HTS first through the FSA, then the TSK. This scenario would have a negative impact, as it is risky. This might trigger a new refugee influx heading towards Turkey. The refugee influx would pressure Turkey. Moreover, as Turkey is not utilizing its air force in the region while Russia is, it might have other negative results. Russians might hit civilians or even Turkish soldiers as it was the case in Operation Euphrates Shield. What will happen is to be determined by the HTS's approach to Turkey.
We have talked about Turkey, Iran and Russia up until now. Is the U.S. no longer an actor in Syria?
The U.S. has selective engagements in Syria; this was one of the policies adopted by the Barack Obama administration. A similar approach was also present during the Bosnian crisis. They are trying to implement their long-term strategies by focusing on specific targets.
The U.S.'s long-term strategy is to balance Iran and anti-U.S. armed groups, which are defined as "Salafi jihadists." For instance, the U.S.'s engagement with the PKK is not temporary; it is a long-term engagement. They are trying to transform the PKK into a force that could be utilized against the said groups. Therefore, the PKK's usage is not limited to the fight against Daesh. We will see what will happen in this matter soon. After the Raqqa operation, we will see how the U.S. will continue to engage with the PKK; either it will validate or invalidate all of the hypotheses.
The U.S. is currently focused on Daesh; later, it will focus on counterbalancing Iran, relations with Turkey and the KRG's independence bid along with Iraq's future. However, the U.S. has lost its initiative in the Syrian issue. If the situation in Idlib is defused in the best possible way, another international process will emerge. For instance, these three actors (Turkey, Russia and Iran) will have more leverage in diplomatic matters. When attending Geneva meetings, the U.S. is in a peculiar position: it is fighting against Daesh, but also cooperating with terrorist organizations. This is because of the transition period in the U.S. and Donald Trump's weakness. The U.S. lacks a solid strategy; it is shaped by institutions and individuals. This is the main issue; we are not talking about the U.S.'s strategies, but about CENTCOM or Brett McGurk.
This is not usual for the U.S.; it is a country that always has long-term targets and implements its plans without hesitation. However, it seems like the U.S. is having issues establishing relations with state actors in the Syrian crisis and managing the process.
If we compare the Idlib operation to last year's Operation Euphrates Shield, what are the similarities and differences?
Operation Euphrates Shield (OES) was an operation that was solely decided by Turkey. It focused more on national security and eliminating threats. Moreover, it was against a target that was deemed as a terrorist organization by the international community. The OES took place in a different geographical setting, as well. The unilateral aspect is not relevant for the Idlib operation; it is a result of the consensus between multiple parties. On the other hand, in Othe ES, the Turkish military was actively fighting against a terrorist element; in Idlib, its role is to observe. It aims to facilitate stability and could be defined as a "peace enforcement" operation.
When the OES was launched, Turkey had set certain geographic goals. How will the Idlib operation contribute towards these goals?
It is important in terms of transforming Turkey's military activities in Syria and allowing the country to gain a military capacity there. The OES could not reach its goal of liberating 5,000 square kilometers because of the Syrian regime cutting Turkey on the south. Moreover, the U.S. and Russia did not want Turkey to go any further in the southern direction. I believe Turkey also did not want this, as it tried to evade being to spread out in the region. Now, Turkey will have a military presence in Syria, which will increase Turkey's influence over Syria and consolidate the OES's goals. If this is successful, Turkey will be able to render Idlib manageable while opening the possibility for investments in the city's infrastructure and superstructure. All of these might lead to Turkey having a greater say in Syria's political and economic structures after the conflict is resolved.
You have expressed that an operation to Afrin is impossible for the time being? Why is that?
We have to be realistic. We may desire Turkey controlling the said region; however, it is not about military capacity. This is related with Russia and the U.S. I believe these two countries would not allow Turkey to launch an operation in Afrin or to control the city. Turkey would not want to escalate such a crisis; it is not rational. Turkey's security, along with other dynamics, indicates that this operation is not possible. Surrounding Afrin is a sounder strategy and this is what Turkey is doing right now.
Will the Idlib operation be sufficient in thwarting the PYD's target of opening a corridor?
The operation provides a means to control PKK activities; however, singular operations will never suffice in completely eliminating the PKK. Turkey will inevitably target the Democratic Union Party/People's Protection Units (PYD/YPG) in Afrin. Otherwise, all that has been done will be temporary. The OES prevented the realization of the said corridor; Idlib operation will bar them from reaching the Mediterranean.
However, Turkey has to adopt a different strategy to prevent possible security threats. Turkey's current strategy could be defined as containment; yet, Turkey will be forced to transform this strategy into direct military intervention when the time comes because the PKK may become an actor that undermines Turkey's national security, domestic security and regional security. This cannot be prevented through containment policies; Turkey has to be militarily active in Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. In order to eliminate threats, Turkey has to maximize its military activities and show its interventionist side.
Is Daesh no longer a threat?
As long as it continues to lose territories, it will no longer be a constant threat to Iraq and Syria. It will be minimized in Syria, while changing form in Iraq. It will go underground and start a wave of terror. Iraq will have a hard time in completely eliminating Daesh.
The post-Daesh era is a totally different discussion. The terrorist organization will no longer be able to maintain its claims in statehood and their "caliphate" discourse will become irrelevant, preventing recruitment. In terms of foreign fighters, the region will be relieved.
On the flipside, these foreign fighters will relocate and go on a "jihad" to another region, or will return to their countries. We do not know what will happen yet. Moreover, Daesh will downplay this defeat and deem it as a forced hijra (emigration). This is what discomforts Americans and Europeans. Turkey will have a crucial role in this issue and will face risks. As Turkey is a transit point, it will have risks for the country.
The terrorist organization, on the other hand, will transform. Therefore, new hardships await all of us in the post-Daesh era. Turkey is important for the West; not just because of its fight against Daesh, but also for its contributions to the fight against global terrorism.
In his last press conference, U.S. ambassador to Turkey John Bass made a remark about Turkey not suffering from any Daesh attacks. How do you evaluate his statement?
While there are various reasons why Turkey did not suffer from terrorist attacks, I believe the statement made by the ambassador was a diplomatic disaster. In my opinion, the statement implied threats. Turkey fighting together with the U.S. against Daesh is not related to terrorist attacks. The threat to Turkey was already emerging from a certain region, which was liberated with the OES. The reason for not having terrorist attacks in Turkish soil is related with Turkey's Daesh strategy becoming functional.
Turkey knows Daesh; it has suffered from 12 attacks. Efficient and proficient counterterrorism teams were formed, intelligence about the terrorist organization was acquired and their terrorist cells in Turkey were raided. The OES prevented terrorists from infiltrating Turkey. The issue was resolved when Turkey discovered Daesh's central organization. It has little to do with the cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. For this reason, the ambassador's statement is an implied threat.
So, what should we understand from John Bass's implied threat?
We should understand that Turkey may face terrorist attacks; it is speculative, of course, but it is possible. Certain countries prepare the basis for such actions; sometimes they instigate, other times they just disregard these terrorist attacks.
Lastly, what are the limitations of the cooperation between Iran, Russia and Turkey?
There are certain constants in the relations between Turkey, Russia and Iran. They are all rivals; however, there are a couple of presets in these relations. When there is a common threat, these countries have an increased cooperation; when the common threat is eliminated, there is an increasing rivalry. Treaty of Saadabad (1937), Baghdad Pact (1955) and the agreement between Turkey and Iraq signed in 1983 against the PKK, which was also acknowledged by Iran, are some of the instances that these dynamics were at play.
An independent entity in northern Iraq is perceived as a threat by both Turkey and Iran; meanwhile, the U.S. is the threat that brings Turkey and Russia together. The situation was exactly the opposite during the Cold War; however, Turkey's priorities along with the U.S.'s role have changed. This is the cause of issues. As the U.S. redefines its role, it creates a situation that threatens Turkey's national or regional security policies. This brings Turkey and Russia closer; however, there are limitations. For instance, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's statement in Ukraine and the defense agreements signed with Ukraine will not please Russia, as they are currently at war and Turkey is offering means to balance the war.