WASHINGTON, February 8, 2016 – After months of hinting that it would consider entering Syria to help anti-Assad forces, Turkey now appears to be actually moving toward that reality. According to intelligence sources in the area, there are “increasing signs” that Turkey is mobilizing ground forces to enter the Syria fray.
The moves come only days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “We don’t want to fall into the same mistake in Syria as in Iraq,” according to Bloomberg News.
Erdogan did not specifically say Turkey will enter Syria, however. He responded to a question about whether Turkey would enter Syria by saying, “You don’t talk about these things. When necessary, you do what’s needed. Right now our security forces are prepared for all possibilities.”
Turkey has long argued for more direct support for rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His backing of rebel forces has drawn criticism from several fronts, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, that Turkey has lent support to ISIS in hopes the group would oust Assad.
“Turkey hates Assad even more than it fears ISIS,” explained one intelligence officer in the region, “But it also hates instability, and the recent ISIS attacks inside Turkey have further complicated this already hugely complicated situation.”
Turkey has begged the international community to create a “safe zone” which would include a no-fly zone, but so far has met resistance from the West and its NATO partners. It appears that Turkey may have finally reached a tipping point where the reasons to enter Syria outweigh the reasons to stay out.
For Turkey, the primary reason to send ground troops across the boarder is to create a buffer zone between the crumbling security situation in Syria and Turkey. As government forces make more gains in Aleppo, only a few kilometers from the border, Turkey is increasingly nervous. Not only does it want to contain violence near its border, it also wants to limit access for desperate refugees and fighters attempting to flee into the country.
One reason for Turkey’s desire for a safe zone is to stop the waves of migrants. Turkey has announced it has “reached its capacity” for absorbing refugees, and the strain of housing the migrants is stretching its already fraying economy. By creating a safe zone, it will allow refugees to remain in camps outside the actual borders of Turkey.
Turkey also wants to stop the flow of weapons and fighters across its 510 mile border. In January, ten people were killed in a suicide bombing in Ankara, blamed on ISIS, suggesting that the group is making good on its promises to target Turkey. The Turkish government is desperate to maintain security in the country for both residents and tourists.
In addition to its own immediate security, Turkey is likely concerned over the shift in momentum in Syria. Thanks to months of Russian intervention, the Assad regime is now re-taking rebel-held territories. Turkey, a predominantly Sunni country, wants to eliminate Iranian influence on its boarder and is concerned that Russian support for Assad could allow the President to remain in power. In addition to potentially sending in troops, Turkey almost certainly will step-up support for anti-Assad rebels, and will provide both funding and weapons.
Two other domestic concerns are influencing Turkey’s views toward Syria: the Kurds and Erdogan’s own hunger for power.
Erdogan is concerned that international support for the Kurds in Syria could revitalize Turkey’s own Kurdish population. Gains by the Kurds are threatening to Erdogan, who does not want to see Assad replaced by a Kurdish-influenced government. Turkey wants a say in the reconfigured Syrian government, and wants one that does not have significant Kurdish power. It likely believes a preemptive move into Syria can ensure the Kurds do not create an autonomous state.
Moreover, Erdogan almost certainly would use any ground troop movement into Syria to crack down on Kurds in Turkey. Erdogan could institute a state of emergency or accuse any Kurdish activists of terrorist activities against the state, using a war in Syria as an excuse.
As Assad attempts to re-write Turkey’s constitution into one giving him, as President, expanded powers, a war footing in Syria could boost his argument. Insecurity in Turkey helped bring him a surprising win last November, and Erdogan will play on that insecurity to broaden his authority. Erdogan moved from Prime Minister to President and now wants to shift Turkey to a presidential system. The opposition members of Parliament continue to fight Erdogan’s efforts, but problems on the border so far have translated into backing for Erdogan, seen as a hard-liner against terrorism and “enemies.”
“If Erdogan can convince the Turkish people that he has to go to war to save them, they will give him more power,” says a US intelligence officer who specializes in Turkish issues, “any terrorist attack or any sign that Assad is gaining power will push them toward Erdogan, the strong man who can save them.”
Turkey also likely wants to position itself to fill the power vacuum that would result if Assad leaves power. With no viable leader in Syria, Erdogan may see a clear opportunity to influence the outcome of any future Syrian elections and to re-assert Turkey as a regional leader.
The announcement last week that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are considering sending troops to Syria will likely further strengthen Turkey’s resolve. Rather than sitting on the sidelines, Turkey wants to position itself as a leader in post-Assad Syria, and it is not likely to risk losing influence, even to its regional allies.
Any Turkish incursion into Syria raises the stakes and broadens the conflict. Iran and Hezbollah would almost certainly respond with increased support for Assad, and Saudi Arabia would lead its fighters in to counter that influx. ISIS will also respond with more fighters to protect its headquarters in Raqqa, and the convoluted, complex quagmire will continue.