Why did Turkey extend its military mandate in Syria, Iraq?

Turkish soldiers take position on a road near Suruc on the border with Syria. (AP Photos)

On Sept. 3, Turkey’s parliament extended the mandate for the military to conduct cross-border operations in Iraq and Syria for a further year.

The government move will also allow foreign troops on Turkish territory to conduct strikes against targets in Syria.

The motion passed despite strong objections from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) calling it “a war mandate”, but the three other parties in parliament voted in favor.

The extension was justified on the basis of “increased risks and threats against Turkey's national security along the southern land borders”.

The move is considered as the logical continuation of Turkey’s increased engagement within the U.S.-led coalition to counter the ISIS threat, by opening up its strategic airbases to coalition aircraft and participating in joint strikes in northern Syria.

In the meantime, according to Turkish media reports, Qatar is also expected to join the coalition airstrikes from bases in Turkey.

PKK threat

Ahmet Kasim Han, associate professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the motion is not an indicator of any threat assessment per se, but shows some continuity.

“The main reason to have similar motions commonplace in Turkey is the terrorism threat of [the] outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the first place, and to ease cross-border military operations in overcoming the PKK threat coming from Northern Iraq,” Han told Al Arabiya News.

Turkey in July launched a large-scale air-strike campaign on PKK positions in the Qandil Mountain of northern Iraq, in retaliation to the outlawed group's rising number of attacks on Turkish security forces.

“Armed PKK terrorist elements continue their presence in Northern Iraq. There is also a significant increase in the number of other terror elements and the threat they pose in Syria and Iraq,” the motion read.

It adds: “Turkey, according great importance on the territorial integrity, national unity and stability of (our) neighbor Iraq, has to continue its military, political and diplomatic measures and initiatives increasingly against the presence of terrorist groups and the threats they bring in Iraq.”

Land incursion in Syria?

In late February, the Turkish army made its first land incursion deep into Syrian territories to evacuate the historic Suleyman Shah Tomb, under the same mandate of the motion.

Experts interviewed by Al Arabiya News said Turkey does not intend to send ground troops into Syria for now, although it possesses the second largest land army among NATO members.

Han said that it would be strategically illogical for Turkey to further engage in the regional war while having to encounter ISIS, Syria's pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK, and at best dubious allies on the ground.

According to Han, with the new motion focusing on ISIS threat, Turkey just wanted to give a symbolic message to the coalition forces, reminding them its engagement into their operations against ISIS militants.

“However, it cannot be said that Turkey has engaged in a large-scale operation against ISIS, and I don't expect that Turkey would dispatch its ground forces into the region due to the current regional and global balances,” he said.

“There is no formal agreement between Turkey and the U.S. about who Turkish ground forces would fight against once they step into Syria, while the U.S. remains in close cooperation with PYD on the ground, seen as PKK’s affiliate group. So, this would be a fragile situation given Turkey’s strategic preferences,” he added.

A Turkish soldier was killed last month during gunfire launched from ISIS-held area in Syria, while another soldier at a border post in Turkey’s southern Kilis province shared the same fate recently, and another one went missing following the same attack on border security forces by ISIS.

Domestic challenge

However, the alarming rise in the number of attacks carried out by the PKK militants against police and military officers mainly in Turkey’s southeastern provinces creates a domestic security challenge for the country, putting any potential cross-border operation into Syria on the back burner.

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said the significance of extending the mandate is that it highlights the continuing existence of a parliamentary majority in Turkey that is willing to back such a posture.

“It should not however be taken as a willingness for the Turkish body politic to back a direct intervention in Syria,” Ulgen told Al Arabiya News.

“The parliamentary mandate was needed for Turkey and the US to implement the terms of the agreement in July that envisioned a more active Turkish role in the anti ISIS campaign including the opening of the Incirlik air base,” he added.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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