Photo: Turkish armor on Turkey's border with Syria. Photo: AP
Turkey’s military intervention in Syria on August 24 successfully forced Islamic State (ISIS) militants back from areas in Syria’s northwestern border, including the town of Jarablus, which the militants evacuated on the first day of the operation. Ankara clearly aims to push ISIS away from the last part of Syria's northern border where it retains a presence and establish a buffer zone that will also prevent Syrian Kurdish-led forces, that Ankara charges with being the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from advancing any further along the border.
The regime in Damascus denounced Turkey’s intervention as an act of aggression and violation of its sovereignty and demanded an immediate withdrawal. It remains too weak, however, to enforce that demand.
When Turkey deployed combat troops protect its military trainers in its Bashiqa forward operating base in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Province last December, without authorization from Iraq’s central government, Baghdad also condemned Ankara for violating its sovereignty, although with much less vitriol than Damascus.
Akin Unver, an assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, told Rudaw English that he does see some similarities between the condemnations of both Turkish deployments, pointing out that “both reactions are merely for saving face. As Baghdad cannot do much about Bashiqa, Damascus too is too weak in its northern borders.”
On Turkish deployments to Bashiqa and Jarablus, Unver said that are different “strategically”.
“Bashiqa is a forward operating base that prioritizes training Peshmerga for the attack on Mosul. Jarablus on the other hand aims to prevent [the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units] YPG from crossing west of the Euphrates River. The only similarity I can think of would be retaining long-term Turkish interests in Iraq and Syria,” he explained.
In addition to Peshmerga soldiers Turkey has also been training Sunni Hashd al-Watani militiamen led by the former governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, at Bashiqa to participate in the future operation to recapture Mosul from the militants.
Unver also believes that the Turkish deployment in Jarablus is more about securing Turkish borders “equally against ISIS and YPG.”
“The emphasis is on demography there,” he said, whereas in Bashiqa it is more about contributing to the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and also maintaining a military position in that region to keep the PKK in check – the latter purpose being the original reason the base was established all the way back in 1992.
It remains unclear how long Turkey wants to stay in the Jarablus region, and whether or not it seeks a permanent presence there.
“That depends on Turkey’s ultimate ambition,” Aaron Stein, a researcher on Turkey at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, told Rudaw English late last week. Stein reasons that if Turkey moves to capture al-Bab from ISIS further south from its border, before the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) can, then it could need “a larger presence inside Syria to sustain operations.”
A forward operating position in that border region could serve as a useful launch pad for Turkey to strike its opponents on the ground in Syria further south of its border. However it remains unclear how far into Syria Turkey will ultimately go.
In Bashiqa Turkey’s deployment is limited and much smaller.
“The deployment in Bashiqa is a mid-sized training mission. The artillery and tanks are really there for self-protection. But they might fire in support of Nujaifi’s forces advancing on Mosul,” Michael Knights, an Iraq expert and Lafer Fellow of the Washington Institute, told Rudaw English.
Such a scenario would be reminiscent of the current Turkish operation in Syria, where Turkish tanks and firepower are supporting allied Syrian militiamen advancing against ISIS west of Jarablus and in the al-Rai border region.
However, pushing further south would require a larger commitment of forces and logistics, as Stein pointed out, coupled with an extended military presence in Syria. This is something Turkey will have to plan carefully for to avoid being sucked further into the Syrian vortex than it is prepared, or able, to go.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.