As Turkey Kicks Off Operation in Northern Syria, Iran Has to Heed Several Strategic Warnings
Field developments in Syria have entered a new phase. ISIS is defeated in Raqqa and US-backed YPG are now in control of most part of the province, previously the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate’s capital.
On the other hand, the Syrian army is making big wins toward the east, getting closer to the ultimate defeat of the ISIS in the province and across the country, where US-backed Kurds are trying to gain field and operational advantages.
However, Syria’s hot spot for the present and the future is in Aleppo and Idlib, northwest of the country, where many political and field developments have occurred in the past two months.
The most important development in the region in an accord among Iran, Russia, and Turkey in Astana to established the fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib. The agreement seems to have given Turkey an open hand in the north, Idlib, and Aleppo, sparking a plethora of analyses. An issue of utmost importance that can drag northwest into a crisis is a clash between the Turkey-backed Free Army with US-backed YPG units.
Operations begin in north
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Saturday his country has started operations to guarantee the security of Idlib. “There’s a serious operation in Syria’s Idlib today and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a speech to his AK Party, adding that Turkey would not allow a “terror corridor” on its border with Syria, according to Reuters. “For now the Free Syrian Army is carrying out the operation there,” Erdogan said in response to a question on whether Turkish military participates in the operation.
On the other hand, local news sources close to the armed opposition have quoted Syrian Democratic Forces announcing they would establish training camps in a village north of Aleppo.
A military official of the alliance of Syrian Democratic Forces with YPG said the group’s main mission is to protect regions under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces north of the province and regions controlled by Euphrates Shield groups in the north and northeast of Aleppo.
Euphrates Shield is an operation by Turkish-backed opposition, controlling parts of Aleppo’s north near the Syrian border with Turkey.
It should be noted that a summit was held in al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, attended by Turkish officers and officials from Syrian militias on military operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces in the region.
Objective no. 1: control Idlib
Before reaching an agreement with Iran and Russia over the fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib, Turkey had constantly warned it would not accept Tahrir al-Sham near its borders. Following the agreement and in recent days, the Turkish army and the Free Syria Army have entered the province, starting a series of operations to kick out Tahrir al-Sham. Controlling Idlib has become Turkey’s first but not necessarily the most important goal. The operational goal will have to face threats and challenges however. Tahrir al-Sham is expected to directly attack Syrian army positions, even inside Turkish territory.
Objective no. 2: war in Afrin
Turkey’s second objective in north Syria is more important, challenging, and risky. There are indications that Turkey wants to launch an attack on Kurds in Afrin, after facilitating control of Idlib by its forces. This would doubtlessly begin a full-fledged war in north Syria.
Turkey has now sent part of the Free Army from north of Aleppo to north of Idlib, to bring them free of the Kurdish siege and enabling them to attack Afrin from to axes, namely east and south. Attacking Afrin is a declaration of war with the Kurds in north Syria, potentially leading to a new phase of conflict.
Objective no. 3: Seizing control of north strip and establishing a buffer zone
The whole thing does not end in Afrin and Turkish efforts to kick out the Kurds. Evidence suggests that Turkey is after more extensive operational goals in the border strip north of Syria. It seems that Ankara wants to reach Tell Rifaat and al-Bab after Afrin. If materialized, this could help Turkey accomplish control over the border strip north of Syria, from Jarabulus to Kobanî. More than anything, this means a buffer zone for Turkey.
However, it will not be that easy. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces will doubtlessly resist, leading to direct military clash between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. In doing so, Turkey will have to face two major challenges.
Challenge no. 1: United States
The Turkish operation against the Kurds will definitely tense up US-Turkey ties in Syria more than ever. The US will try to prevent the expansion of the clash between Ankara and the Kurds. Pressure on Turkey could be part of such efforts because the US does not want Turkey’s attack on the most important player it controls in Syria – a player that could be the United States’ strategic advantage in the future of the Syria crisis.
Challenge no. 2: Iran and Russia
The outcome of Turkish expansionism in north of Syria and escalation of war with the Kurds in the region will be nothing but another war spreading across Syria. Given efforts by Tehran and Moscow to end the Syrian crisis, this will not be acceptable for them.
On the other hand, pretty much like the US, Russia has close ties with the Syrian Kurds too. Russia is also concerned about the expansion of regions under Kurdish control toward the northwest of Syria, reaching to Mediterranean coasts. However, Moscow does not want an extension of the clash between Turkey and Kurds in the north of Syria.
A few strategic and operational warnings
No doubt, the new operation under Turkey’s leadership in Syria has not been launch without approval from Iran and Russia. Their agreement has approximated their positions on the Syrian crisis. However, there are important issues to consider:
First, Turkey wants to use the Free Army in its operations against the Kurds or Tahrir al-Sham. The group’s raison d'etre is to fight with the Syrian government. Facing operational, structural, and ideological rifts over the past two years, the group has become weaker. In fact, it has lost more than 70 percent of its forces for various reasons.
There is no doubt that the group’s leadership in north of Syria would mean its return to power in field development in the country, as the group desperately wants to regain international support and legitimacy in Syria’s future developments. Although this seems to be no major challenge for Russia, it is in fundamental conflict with the interests of Iran and the Syrian government because the group’s main goal is to overthrow the government of Basahr al-Assad.
Moreover, increased operational influence of Turkey in Syria could lead to a strategic advantage for Ankara in the future of the Syrian crisis. In fact, the empowerment of the Turkey-backed Free Army together with Ankara’s control over part of north Syria could lead to increased bargaining power in the future equilibrium. Therefore, it can be said that Turkey could use the plan to renew its marginalized role in Syria, which could be in conflict with the interests of Iran and the Syrian government.