Turkish soldiers cross into Syria near the border town of Karkamis. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP
Earlier this month Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that talks are underway between the US and Turkey over taking military action against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in their Raqqa stronghold. Could Turkey realistically play a major role in capturing Raqqa from the militants?
What Turkey could do “will become more concrete after talks,” Erdogan said. “What can be done on the issue is related to the US stance.”
His spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, said on Tuesday that Turkey does not yet have any plans to move against that city; it is focused on al-Bab for now.
Nevertheless it is well worth pondering what Turkey can do militarily against ISIS in Raqqa, apart from contributing more jet fighters to the US-led counter-ISIS campaign, which has already been carrying out airstrikes against Raqqa for two years now.
Since intervening militarily in northwestern Syria three weeks ago, Turkey has been targeting both ISIS and Syrian Kurdish forces on the west bank of the Euphrates River. Given Raqqa’s location eastward of that river, and southward of Syria’s northeastern PYD-controlled border, could the Turkish military possibly help capture Raqqa without rolling through Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan)?
Robert Lowe is deputy director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics where his main research interest is in Kurdish movements in Syria. He told Rudaw English that Turkey could choose this course of action, but warned of its likely consequences.
“Turkey could choose to push deeper into Syrian territory to try to wipe out both ISIS and the Rojava project, but it would be massively risky,” Lowe said.
“If the Turks decide to destroy Rojava they will likely face a difficult and drawn out struggle against the [Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units] YPG and the [Kurdistan Workers Party] PKK inside Syria and an escalation of the conflict with the PKK inside Turkey,” he explained.
Such an intervention, he added, could see Turkey embroiled in a lengthy conflict on foreign soil which would “probably cause large scale displacement of the population of northern Syria.”
“Such an operation would attract international condemnation because, while the removal of ISIS would be welcomed, there is a feeling that the PYD needs to be restrained rather than wiped out. I think the US would oppose Turkey marching through Rojava to attack Raqqa,” Lowe explained.
“Good luck to the US if they’re trying to persuade Turkey and the YPG to stop confronting each other,” Lowe went on to remark.
Lowe reckons that the Turks could find an alternative route to Raqqa that would lessen the risk of more direct clashes between them and the YPG.
“The Turks don’t need to go through Kurdish territory, I think they could head south from Jarablus and stay on the west bank of the Euphrates along Lake Assad to the Thawra dam and then go on to Raqqa,” Lowe explained. “The YPG seem to have pulled back from Manbij so they’re not in the way any more for this route.”
Since punching through Rojava could be a disastrous move for Turkey, it is worth contemplating if Ankara could reach some kind of an agreement with the PYD which would permit their soldiers and armor to cross through their territory.
Back in February 2015, local authorities in Rojava, according to Idriss Nassan, a Syrian Kurdish official, allowed a large Turkish military force to cross their territory as part of their incursion to relocate the Suleyman Shah tomb, a Turkish exclave inside Syria, closer to the Turkish border.
However, since that time the tentative ceasefire with the PKK has collapsed and clashes have escalated along the Syrian border between Turkish forces and the YPG.
“I don’t see how a deal [for the Turks] to go through Rojava could work,” Lowe said.
But, he added, “The Kurds might buy that they know they are weak and they don’t need a fight with the Turkish Army. But I doubt the Turks would go for it, they are too hostile to the PYD and they finally have their chance to hit them.”
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.