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Is Turkish military intervention in Syria rational?

We once again find ourselves in a discussion about possible military intervention in Syria with a change in the rules of engagement

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

In the 1990s, the Middle East, for Turkey, was the major source of its security concerns – just like it is today. Turkey’s strained relations with its neighboring countries and the PKK threat originating from these countries pushed Turkey to adopt a security-orientated approach by pursuing policies prioritizing military means and balancing threats with alliances.

During those times, due to Damascus’ support of the PKK, Turkey and Syria were at the brink of war. Turkey threatened to invade Syria with sharpening of the rhetoric of Turkish leaders and the increasing deployment of Turkish troops for war. However, such a war didn’t happen after the signing of the Adana agreement between two countries in 1998.

In recent days in Turkey, we once again find ourselves in a discussion about possible military intervention in Syria with a change in the rules of engagement, a sharpened rhetoric from Turkish leaders, and differing scenarios regarding the creation of a buffer zone, amid several unverified media reports regarding Turkey’s preparation for intervention.

Will Turkey really occupy northern Syria? Who will be the target of the Turkish troops: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists, or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed s a terrorist organization by Turkey, or the Bashar al-Assad regime? What would be the main aim of such a move?

Fertile ground

Needless to say, Syria is more than a quagmire today. It has become fertile ground for foreign fighters and several countries playing proxy war cards. The civil war in the country has been so complicated that it has become so hard to understand who is cooperating with who. There are several reports suggesting there is cooperation between the PYD and the Assad regime, while others say ISIS is cooperating with Assad and some accuse Turkey of aiding ISIS. One could list several questions and scenarios on the possible Turkish intervention; however, I would say that the worst thing for the country is to drag itself into a war full with uncertainties and risks.

Syria in 1998 was a completely different Syria from today. In 1998, Turkey's intervention was a threat to the existence of the regime, but today, the Syrian regime considers Turkey's intervention as a factor in the continuity of its power, or in other words, a factor to ensure its survival. Moreover, such an intervention would also give opportunity to other groups to ensure their survival.

We once again find ourselves in a discussion about possible military intervention in Syria with a change in the rules of engagement

Sinem Cengiz

Will it be rational for Turkey to invade Syria now? No, as a state Turkey feels threatened by the situation in its south; however it has no rational reason for unilateral intervention, whether to form a buffer zone or not, in Syria at the moment. Also, Turkey is not under direct attack from the Syrian side, nor is the political situation in Ankara ready to decide on such a critical decision.

Even presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın announced that intervention would not be rational. "To interpret our border security measures as 'Turkey is going to war'... is not very rational. A country has a natural right to protect its borders," he said, adding that Turkey would not take any "unilateral steps" and would continue to act in line with the international community in efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. Without giving further details, Kalın also noted that Turkey already had the necessary legal justification for moves that would preserve its border security.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chaired a National Security Council meeting, which voiced concern about a 'terrorism' threat from across the border. Days after Erdoğan stated that Turkey would never allow the formation of a Kurdish state along its southern borders, several reports circulated in the media stating that government was considering creating a buffer zone in Syria with 110 km long and 33 km deep from the Jarablus to Azaz.

Although the creation of a buffer zone may seem to be an advantage for Turkey, as it will prevent Kurdish cantons from Kobane to Afrin to join up and will allow the creation of refugee camps; refugees will gather on the Syrian side of the border and will be protected by the Turkish side. Such a move is unlikely as it would require a major military operation, more importantly a strong international backing. The threat of intervention seems to be a show of strength by Turkey to Kurds in Syria and a signal to the countries that support Kurdish advances which may lead to the creation of a Kurdish autonomous region along Turkish border.

In any case, if Turkey would decide for such a move would mean an intervention to a foreign country; without using proxies but directly deploying its troops. Such a move carries disquieting risks and Turkey may face problems on multiple fronts.

Threats

Firstly, if Turkey enters Syria, ISIS, which will be against the Turkish intervention, would be the greatest threat it will face. A terrorist organization proficient in suicide attacks may consider Turkey and Turkish citizens as a target. Such a scenario is scary enough when taking into consideration the fragile political and economic situation in Turkey.

Secondly, such a Turkish move may cause serious diplomatic troubles with Iran and Russia, two staunch supporters of the Syrian regime, which is also expected to react to Turkish intervention.

Also, Turkey has not totally been in agreement with its NATO ally, the U.S., which supports the Kurdish forces in Syria against ISIS, over the buffer zone issue. The two sides differ over the aim and target in the Syrian crisis. While for Washington, ISIS is the main problem, for Turkey, in addition to ISIS, the PYD and the Assad regime are the problems.

Thirdly, such military action would have economic implications. Military expenditures is another factor that makes such an intervention further risky. Also, sending troops to Syria would be a tough ordeal for the Turkish administration as Syria now is like a dark tunnel. This is one of the main reasons for the reluctance of the Turkish army regarding such an intervention.

Lastly, the Turkish public does not seem to be supportive of Turkish involvement in the Syria crisis. The war with Syria would make no sense when taking into account all the risks.


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Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former diplomatic correspondent for Today’s Zaman newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz"

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