Will Turkey really invade northern Syria?

If history is any guide, Turkey will not make an incursion into its southern neighbor

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Don’t hold your breath. If history is any guide, Turkey will not make an incursion into its southern neighbor. It is another bluff by an increasingly isolated country that is disturbed by gains of the Kurds in northern Syria.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed not to tolerate a Kurdish statehood in northern Syria. A day later, perceivably pro-government Turkish media outlets blared on their front pages how the military had already drafted plans to invade 110-km stretch of the border to some 30 km deep inside Syria. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed that the military is ready to address any threats against its borders without mentioning if there is a plan to set up a buffer zone within Syria.

On Monday, the country’s top national security council said after a lengthy meeting that it discussed additional security measures on the Turkish-Syrian border and expressed concerns over attempts to change the “demographic situation” in areas recently captured by Kurdish YPG militias.

The renewed debates surrounding the buffer zone comes at a time when Turkey has raised its voice against alleged moves by Kurds “to clean northern Syria from Turkmens and Arabs.” Turkish pro-government news outlets published - almost daily - horrific accounts of refugees who fled areas captured by the Kurdish militants. Critics argue that Ankara is using the claim of demographic change as a ruse to get into Syria.

A bluff?

Only a few months ago, Turkey abandoned its only territory abroad, the tomb of Suleyman Shah, to avoid risking a war with militants in Syria. There is no indication that Turkey will go to war this time because Kurds are ruling areas they capture in a non-democratic way.

Establishing a buffer zone within Syria has been Turkey’s grievance in the past year. The Turkish military has currently no capability to establish such a safe haven with robust air patrols. Because a global coalition fighting against ISIS didn’t view such a safe haven as favorable, Ankara failed to move forward on that front. This, in fact, has been one of Turkey’s three conditions for getting on board with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. The U.S. State Department made it clear on Tuesday that there is no need for a buffer zone in Syria and that the challenges of setting up such a safe haven are “remarkable.”

Bringing down Assad

Turkey initially believed that the rise of ISIS in Syria last year would drag the world’s attention to Syria again and viewed the gathering storm around Syria as a golden opportunity to bring down the Syrian regime. Ankara’s contribution to anti-ISIS efforts has been limited after the U.S.-led coalition made it clear that their focus and priority is defeating and destroying ISIS. Turkey suggested the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria, which will house Syrian refugees and become a training ground for moderate rebels.

Turkey argued that without crippling Syrian air power, any war waged in the country will be futile. The buffer zone, Turkey argued, would also serve as a no-fly zone, an area where Assad’s barrel-dropping aircraft won’t reach. None of Turkey’s demands were met.

The U.S.-funded train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian rebels was also viewed as a chance by Turkey to beef up the rebels who will eventually fight against Assad. Washington and Ankara had a hard time in agreeing on the objectives of the program. It was delayed multiple times and hit many roadblocks along the way. The program has been viewed as an utter failure, with the number of trainees even falling below 100 by the last week. The U.S. planned to train at least 5,000 Syrian rebels a year and spared half a billion dollars for the program. The disagreement over vetting rebels has probably played a major role in moving forward with the program that was designed to build up a robust military body as a partner ground force against the ISIS.


For decades, Turkey has confronted any country that somehow supported Kurdish grievances. It even was on the brink of war with Syria for sheltering PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in the late 1990s. That behavior, after a three-year hiatus, seems to be emerging again. The last time Erdogan vowed not to tolerate the PKK presence in northern Syria was in 2012’s summer, just a month before key talks that kicked off the peace process with Kurds. That bellicose rhetoric returned at a time when that peace process is in stalemate.

The fiercest fighting in the past few month was along the Turkish-Syrian border. Backed by coalition air strikes, Kurds fought a bloody war against the ISIS militants, creating a security threat for Turkey. The Turkish military was given an order to beef up security along the border against any militants infiltrating into Turkey, particularly from ISIS or the Syrian intelligence. That heightened security was presented by the media as if the military was preparing to invade northern Syria. The media reports by pro-government news outlets were a veiled threat to Kurds as well as a signal to the West that Turkey will not tolerate unrestricted help to Kurds in their fight against ISIS.

Because Kurds rarely fought against Assad’s forces throughout the civil war in Syria, I believe that Erdogan views them as Assad’s ally and opportunists who want to carve out their own state in the middle of the chaos.

In a nutshell, the Turkish military is not considering leaving their barracks and go into uncharted waters such as Syria. All the fuss is a mere threat and a bluff against Kurds who gained international sympathy due to their fight against ISIS.


Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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