One wonders who in the Turkish High Command devised the name, Operation Peaceful Spring for the latest Turkish invasion of Syria. It is war, with winter fast approaching, and the outlook for civilians in northern Syria is particularly bleak. As with every stage of every part of the conflict in Syria, civilians will pay the highest penalty. That is about the only certainty.
What are Turkey’s aims for this operation? Most understand it to be to prevent any semblance of a Kurdish autonomous presence in Syria. Turkey wants to prevent the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which it sees as a terrorist branch of the PKK, from carrying out attacks inside Turkey. It claims the YPG is supplying weapons to groups inside Turkey. In all likelihood, all this may actually provoke violent responses. One thing often overlooked is that many Syrian Kurds do not necessarily support the YPG and did not always appreciate its style of rule.
Turkey has also said its plan is to create a "safe zone" on the Syrian side of its border some 20 miles deep where it could send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts. To do this, Turkey has plans to build 200,000 homes in 40 towns in the new “safe zone” in northern Syria costing a mere $27 billion, funds Turkey certainly does not have to spare.
But who is going to want to go and live there? Trapped between the warring Turkish army, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Isis, this promises to be a zone of acute insecurity for many years. It is also expressly illegal to forcibly return refugees to their country of origin against their will. Would the international community provide any funding for this if the legal basis is not clear-cut?
Why is President Erdoğan doing this now? Many believe that after his recent electoral loss in Istanbul, he needs a big win. Expanding Turkish-occupied areas in Syria could provide just that. Yet this cannot be the whole story. There is a broad consensus in Turkish military circles about the danger posed by Kurdish groups like the YPG. Defeating them is seen as an issue of national security.
Erdoğan also knows that the opportunity is ripe now and it may not last for long. President Trump may be out of office in January 2021 and he effectively consented to this operation when he announced a pullback of US forces. Erdoğan has this small window to rearrange the southern borders of Turkey and he is intent on maximising the opportunity.
Turkish forces began their attack on 9 October. This was the third major Turkish military invasion of Syria - following Operation Olive Branch in Afrin (2018) and Operation Euphrates Shield (2016-17). Syrian Kurds know what to expect.
Panic arrived well before the bombs and early footage showed civilians fleeing or at least those who can. Syrian Kurds know exactly what happened in Afrin, when violence and looting accompanied the Turkish invasion. Aid agencies are alarmed. How many civilians will be forced to flee and to where? Will aid be let in? Will there be proper access for aid agencies who would be able to operate freely and assist all people on the basis of need.
It is a massive gamble. Success depends in part on the extent of the operation and how far Erdoğan decides to go. If he keeps to very tight parameters focussing on Tal Abyad and Ras al Ayn and Turkish forces only make a narrow incursion into Syria, Turkish forces could complete their mission fairly swiftly and then ask what all the fuss was about.
But this invasion may also trigger other actors in the region. The Syrian regime could start to move forward with more intensity either in Idlib or to the east by attacking the southern flank of the Syrian Democratic Forces’s controlled zone. Many fear that Turkey has done another grubby deal with Russia, to accept the Syrian regime’s capture of Idlib in exchange for consenting to the Turkish operation in the north-east. The situation in Idlib is atrocious but the international community is simply ignoring it. Already 400,000 Syrians, 150,000 of whom are children, have been displaced there since late April.
Will Russia decide to up its military activity in support of this? What will Iran do to ensure its interests are met? Israel will be watching events intently. It will also be wary of any Iranian attempts to profit from the situation. Israeli leaders will be interested to see how the international community treats occupied territories when Turkey is the occupier not Israel.
The international community will probably continue to call on Turkey “to act with restraint.” The UN Security Council will do little given that it did not in the run up to the invasion. If there is one thing that will harness their energies, it is the threat of Isis fighters breaking out or being broken out of one of the seven SDF-controlled camps in north-east Syria. This is the only bargaining chip the SDF has. The fear of an Isis 2.0 is acute and with reason.
Significant anger exists amongst many American and British politicians about betraying allies who had fought against Isis, who had essentially been the foot soldiers against these extremists, whose forces had died to smash this group. Trump faces significant domestic criticism even amongst Republican politicians typically loyal to the White House. A sanctions bill has already procured bipartisan support. In the British Parliament, speaker after speaker in both houses lined up to appeal to the US not to abandon Kurdish allies, and warning of the message it sends to allies in the region about western untrustworthiness.
The likely beneficiaries are almost certainly Isis, the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia. Unless this operation is brought to close swiftly, the implications could be massive. The outcomes are unlikely to be positive for regional security nor for the future of inter-ethnic and sectarian relations in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.