In the wake of its Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch military operations, Turkey has sent troops into northeastern Syria in an operation dubbed Springs of Peace. This is supposed to answer a longstanding Turkish security worry about Kurdish terrorism and at least nominally intensify the fight against the Islamic State. But it is also a major stunt on the domestic political scene, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is facing difficulties. The risks for all concerned are high and require a cohesive European Union response.
On the face of it, Ankara’s decision to again send troops into Syria is a continuation of its occupation of the Jarablus area north of Aleppo (Operation Euphrates Shield) and of the ‘Afrin Kurdish district (Operation Olive Branch). It is based on a four-decade-old fight against the insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey considers to be the political master of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG).
Historically, Turkish politicians have been fearful of a “Kurdistan” emerging on their southern border and of the contagious effect this might have on the Kurds of southeastern Turkey. The sudden rise to third position of the People’s Democratic Party, which is Kurdish in origin, in the legislative elections of June 2015 alarmed Turkey’s leadership. The elections were later cancelled.
This concern was subsequently aggravated by the military success of the YPG in reuniting the central district, or “canton,” of Kobanê and the eastern district of Jazeera. Hence the military operations in Jarablus and ‘Afrin were aimed at stopping the YPG’s westward march, before Operation Springs of Peace was launched.
The current military operation is also a domestic political stunt. Erdoğan is in a difficult situation at home after a massive loss of major municipalities to the opposition. In addition, two major personalities from the president’s Justice and Development Party, Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, are creating new parties. Finally, the economy is in dire straits due the president’s own mistakes. A new incursion in Syria based on national security concerns and a fierce nationalist narrative is an ideal way to rally the majority of public opinion, silence most of the opposition, and distract attention from political trials such as that of the businessman Osman Kavala, who stands accused of being behind the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
In this spirit, Erdoğan’s political narrative includes taking a confrontational position with regard to European states, who have criticized Turkish actions in Syria. The president has threatened, in retaliation, to “open the gates” to refugees wanting to migrate to European countries.
At the time of writing, Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army proxies had advanced very carefully at the center of the 300-kilometer-wide strip between the Euphrates River and the Syrian government-controlled city of Qamishli. But on October 13 Damascus announced that its forces would be deployed along the Turkish border in Qamishli and Kobanê, and also at Manbij, south of Jarablus. This was most probably done with Russian consent and is fully in line with Moscow’s often-repeated objective of helping restore the territorial integrity of the Syrian state. This has triggered a retreat of U.S. and French troops, but more importantly makes Turkey’s military incursion immensely more complicated. This was only compounded by the U.S. decision on October 14 to call for a ceasefire in Syria and impose sanctions on Turkey.
On October 17 and 18 in Brussels, EU leaders will have to craft a position on Turkey’s military incursion in Syria. This will be no small feat, as they will have to navigate amidst several imperatives: alleviating a humanitarian disaster, avoiding fueling Erdoğan’s current fury against Europe, and finding meaningful ways to mitigate the crisis and protect EU interests.
The EU will have several priorities. First, it will have to enter into an urgent dialogue with Russia, Turkey, the United States, and the United Nations over the modalities of internationally-guaranteed security arrangements along the border allowing for a Turkish withdrawal and ways to avoid a further military escalation. This is contingent on Russia’s willingness to facilitate a dialogue between Damascus and all the other stakeholders. However, nothing is clear at this point in time.
Second, the EU will have to reinforce the custody of jihadis in the vast triangle still under the control of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Securing the camps where jihadis and civilians are being held to avoid that the SDF-YPG react to the new situation in which they find themselves by setting the prisoners free is a major worry for European leaders. Finding the modalities to achieve this objective will nevertheless be difficult.
Third, the EU must continue the dialogue on EU assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey, until a political settlement on the future governance of Syria offers opportunities to talk about a real resettlement. Simultaneously, the EU has to find ways to provide humanitarian assistance to populations currently displaced southward by the Turkish incursion.
Fourth, sanctions, such as freezing the assets of Turkey’s leadership or reducing EU funding to support modernization in Turkey, will have little effect. The European decision to stop arms exports has begun and is legitimate, but it will have limited consequences. Suspending or postponing major direct investments from EU companies in Turkey would be a more meaningful act.
Any political action should be a collective EU effort, not just a French or German move that would inevitably leave Ankara with more latitude to counteract any decisions taken. The best way to signify to Turkey that its military incursion entails more dangers than solutions is to keep a firm and cohesive EU attitude and take the EU back to the negotiating table, which is not dominated by Turkey.