Philip Robins | Professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Oxford
There can be no simple answer to this question. Turkey is a demographically mixed country. At its core is a 60 percent Sunni, Turkish community that is the bedrock of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election victories. But there are also dissenters. The Alevi population, mainly Kemalist in outlook, tends not to support Erdogan and may be ambivalent when it comes to his policies towards Syria. Indeed, there is still a residue of Kemalist elitism which has opposed the idea of foreign adventures, notably in the Middle East during the early 1990s and 2000s. There is also the Kurdish issue, with the insurgency having escalated again and a peace process in tatters.
Yet there are also more tangible motivations. The most evident is Erdogan’s personal ambition. Initially he reacted to the “Arab Spring” as the people’s champion, especially towards Egypt. As the counterrevolutions took root, he saw a geopolitical opportunity to do in Syria what the United Kingdom and France had done—initially at least—in Libya. This was his chance, his destiny! But the complexities have not gone away. There have been 500 dead in recent terror attacks in Turkey, increased divisions with the United States over Syria, especially over lofty Kurdish ambitions there, and a need for Ankara to ally itself, momentarily at least, with Iran and Russia. Turkey remains exposed.
Nigar Göksel | Project director for Turkey at the International Crisis Group
In an ideal world Turkey would like to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity and see its government in the hands of individuals or groups ideologically and strategically aligned with Turkey. However, after September 2015, when Russia intervened militarily in Syria and took on a predominant position there, Ankara knew this was not realistic. Given the global and regional balance of power, Turkey’s aspirations are now geared toward ensuring that non-jihadi, Turkish-aligned rebel forces maintain control of as much territory as possible and enable a greater Turkish say in Syria’s future.
It is also paramount for Turkey to prevent the formation of a viable entity in Syria run by affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), particularly if such an entity stretches from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean. This would represent a vital threat to Turkey’s national security, and a geopolitical game-changer. Therefore, Turkey is looking for opportunities to weaken the position of PKK affiliates such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) inside Syria, and block their advance. Turkey is also strengthening the military posture of its own forces and rebel allies relative to the PYD and YPG.
Another central goal is to ensure that Syrians who would otherwise flee to Turkey to take refuge there can remain safely inside Syria, so as not to exacerbate the already major challenge Turkey is facing in accommodating some 3.2 million Syrian refugees in the country. By some estimates there are 2–2.5 million people in Idlib governorate, half of them displaced from elsewhere in the country. A Russian-backed regime offensive into Idlib could result in massive displacement, so Turkey has strong reasons to avoid this.
Ziya Meral | Resident fellow at the British Army’s Center for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research
Turkey’s aims in Syria have evolved since the Syrian uprising in 2011. While initially its diplomatic and then increasing military engagements were ultimately about bringing regime change to Syria, the priority today is mainly ensuring Turkey’s own security. The central focus of its immediate policy is stopping the territorial expansion of groups related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It sees a direct threat to its own domestic security and stability from those regions of Syria governed by PKK networks.
The Syrian civil war has been costly to Turkey at all levels imaginable. The conflict played a key role in causing the collapse of peace talks with the PKK and undoing all of the positive steps taken on Kurdish issues in Turkey during the last decade. It brought some 3 million Syrian refugees to Turkey. It also led to terror attacks by the Islamic State and suspected pro-Assad networks, causing an unprecedented number of civilian casualties. Therefore, the government’s medium-term aim is to contain the conflict, stop and reverse refugee movements, and prevent the conflict from impacting Turkey further.
In the long run, Ankara aims to reap economic benefits from the reconstruction of Syria and maintain effective influence in shaping what comes next. In order to achieve these aims in the short and long term, Turkey has to remain among the stakeholders that shape developments in the field directly. The only way of doing so is to increase its direct military footprint in Syria, which is what Turkey is doing at the moment.
Soli Özel | Professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, columnist at Habertürk newspaper
Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed on September 15, during the Astana talks, to the establishment of four deconfliction zones in Syria, of which Idlib is the hardest to manage. They each decided to send 500 troops to safeguard the ceasefire there. Although many of the details of the deployment remain uncertain, there will be a Joint Coordination Center and, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey will be positioned inside opposition-held areas and Russia outside them.
Turkey has supported the Free Syrian Army against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, whose dominant force is the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Turkish forces have also deployed near Afrin, controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). According to journalist Fehim Taştekin, who knows the terrain well, Turkey is trying to bring together disparate groups and mobilize them in Idlib against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
Turkey has four main goals in this undertaking: In return for cooperating with Russia and Iran and making its allies fight against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Turkey wishes to be allowed to intervene in Afrin against the PYD and prevent a Kurdish corridor to the Mediterranean along Turkey’s border with Syria. It also hopes to prevent yet another massive inflow of refugees from Idlib, which may be home to over 1.5–2 million people. In addition, Ankara wishes to keep armed groups away from its own borders. And last but not least, by having troops on the ground in Syria, Turkey wishes to have a say in the country’s future, especially now that the Islamic State has been defeated and, therefore, major combat operations in Syria may be over.