US President Donald Trump claims Turkey can adopt America’s role in Syria following its withdrawal and combat any remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS). However, even if Turkey did focus solely on combating the jihadist group – rather than attacking the Syrian Kurds – fundamental doubts have been raised as to its actual capabilities.
Turkey has already sought American military assistance for taking up its role in Syria, ranging from logistical support to airstrikes. According to the Wall Street Journal, this has already led US officials to conclude that if Washington meets these “extensive” requests, “the American military might be deepening its involvement in Syria instead of reducing it before leaving.”
“I haven’t heard anyone say they think the Turks can do it,” said one unnamed US military official cited by the WSJ.
Were Ankara to forgo its threat to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and actually wage a campaign to destroy ISIS remnants in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, it would need to deploy its forces up to 200 miles south of the Turkish border. This would mean pushing beyond the southern border of Syrian Kurdistan’s (Rojava) main regions and other areas currently controlled by the SDF.
Were it to attack the SDF and take a large chunk of those territories – which altogether constitute one-third of Syria – this would likely spark a months-long war and give ISIS enough breathing room to regroup.
The only other logical option would be for Turkey to make some kind of agreement with the SDF to send armoured columns and troops through SDF territory.
In light of Turkey’s various cross-border artillery bombardments on Rojava and its outright invasion of its northwest Afrin exclave, it is easy to forget that Turkish military forces crossed through Rojava without incident back in February 2015. The relocation of the Suleyman Shah tomb, which Ankara feared could have been destroyed given its location within a small Turkish exclave on Syrian soil, consisted of approximately 600 Turkish troops backed by 100 armoured vehicles, including 39 tanks, transiting through the Kobane region without incident in a one-day operation.
James Jeffrey, the United States’ Special Representative for Syria Engagement, is currently working to devise an arrangement whereby the Turkish military can launch an operation against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley while avoiding SDF-held territories. He has even asked the Syrian Kurds to hold off making any deals with the Syrian regime while he pursues the unenviable task of trying to formulate a workable arrangement.
It is unlikely Turkey has any serious plans for an operation against ISIS in eastern Syria. Ankara previously opposed the US using the SDF to capture Raqqa from ISIS back in 2016-2017, invariably arguing that it should not use one terrorist organization to destroy another.
Turkey suggested on numerous occasions at the time that the US should have instead worked with Turkey to capture Raqqa. When it came down to actually formulating plans, however, Ankara didn’t have anything very concrete to offer. It usually insisted that the US wait for the establishment of an army of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels, under the notorious failure that was the train-and-equip program to use as an alternative proxy fighting force.
It also never offered to have its military play anything more than a secondary role to the Americans in any assault on the city.
Skepticism about Turkey’s ability to launch another major operation in Syria is not only being expressed by US officials but by some notable figures in the Turkish military itself.
As Fehim Tastekin noted in a piece for Al-Monitor, doubts as to the feasibility of another cross-border Turkish campaign have been raised by the top brass, including four-star General Ismail Metin Temel, who received plaudits for his leadership skills in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations, and commando brigade commander Brigadier Mustafa Barut.
Both men, Tastekin points out, were held in high regard by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are now relegated to desk jobs.
According to Turkish media, both men have concerns about Turkey launching a major operation east of the Euphrates, arguing the battle-hardened People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF, are better trained and better equipped than their counterparts in Afrin, which Turkey defeated in early 2018.
“Climatic and topographic conditions” could also prove detrimental to Turkey’s “goal of minimal casualties,” they warned.
They further question the necessity of deploying Turkish power so far beyond its borders to combat ISIS when the group no longer operates on its frontiers.
Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield operation across a 60-mile front against ISIS between August 2016 and March 2017. It then launched Operation Olive Branch against the YPG in Afrin between January and March 2018. On both occasions Turkish forces remained very close to their own border. This proved advantageous, as these forces could be rapidly reinforced, resupplied, and their wounded evacuated.
In addition to airstrikes, the close proximity of these battlefields allowed Turkey to hit enemy targets with cross-border artillery.
The main reason Euphrates Shield dragged on for seven-months was because Turkey had to extend its ground offensive 30 miles from its own border to fight a well-entrenched ISIS opponent in the city of Al-Bab, where Turkey lost the majority of its 71 soldiers and the approximately 600 Syrian proxy forces killed in that campaign.
The invasion of Afrin took a comparably short period of two months. The takeover was rapid thanks in part to the YPG decision not to wage a drawn out urban insurgency, but largely thanks to Afrin’s proximity to Turkey.
Besides sharing its entire northern border with Turkey, Afrin is also bordered to the west by Turkey’s Hatay province. Turkey even had troops deployed south of Afrin in Syria’s Idlib province, there as part of the Russian-brokered Astana Protocol.
Finally, any major Turkish action on the Kurds is unlikely court the support of the US or Russia. The latter in particular showed it “was able to regulate the pace of the Olive Branch operation by occasionally closing Syrian airspace to the Turkish air force,” Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan has pointed out.
“Moscow’s closure of Afrin’s airspace to Turkish planes between March 18 and 24 allowed YPG elements to withdraw from Afrin to Tel Rifaat without being targeted by the Turkish air force,” he noted.
Overall these precedents bode ill for a successful Turkish campaign in eastern Syria – especially in Rojava’s heartland against the Kurds.