Turkey’s Syrian Intervention Calculus

Here is what Erdogan is up to...

Despite heightened media reporting that Turkey has been planning a full-scale intervention in Syria, Prime Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly tried to dismiss these rumors saying this past week, “No one should expect that Turkey will go into Syria tomorrow or in the near future. It's speculation.” Having just hosted a high-level American delegation in Ankara to discuss the situation in Syria and joint efforts to defeat the so-called Islamic State, many observers are prone to believe the prime minister. However, the real man to watch may be his political patron, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey has already deployed further artillery and missile batteries and added additional troops on the Syrian border over this past weekend as President Erdogan called an unprecedented National Security Council meeting without an elected government in place yet. In addition, the Armed Forces leadership has called a meeting for this weekend to discuss a proposed intervention to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria. Talk of intervention is being considered at a time when Washington has been focused on defeating ISIS through working closely with “effective partners” on the ground in the form of Kurdish forces and regional allies. While Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar’s backed opposition militias are laying siege to President Assad’s remaining positions in Aleppo, they still do not have a unified command structure and there is little consensus on what a post-Assad Syria might look like. Key to any future regional calculus in Syria is understanding the reasoning of one man, President Erdogan, who seems determined to assert Turkish leadership and can be a powerful spoiler for all future developments.

President Erdogan’s recent convocation of the National Security Council in Ankara to discuss a potential intervention is more substantive than purely rhetorical bluster. Ankara presently has 54,000 troops stationed on the border and is reportedly mulling deploying four hundred more armored vehicles to the border for a potential incursion. The president’s contemplation of increased actions seems driven by his assessment that the situation across Turkey’s southern border is becoming unsustainable, along with his own domestic political considerations. Erdogan has a limited window to take such decisive action before the formation of the new coalition government under Davutoglu, which may constrain his present autonomy in foreign- and defense-policy decision making.

President Erdogan’s changing assessment of the threat environment is driven by three degrees of threats Syria poses. For Erdogan, President Bashar al-Assad and the Kurds are the most immediate threats in his view (and ISIS is a distant third) to Turkey’s national security. Washington disagrees with this assessment and has been trying to convince Ankara to focus on defeating ISIS by making peace with the Kurdish forces that have been the most effective American partners on the ground against ISIS. The high-level American delegation that just visited Ankara and the ongoing dialogue do not seem to have changed Erdogan’s calculation that many of the other Islamist groups in northern Syria are sympathetic to the Sunni-predominant Turkey and remain his best potential partners in defeating Assad.

The most recent terrorist attacks in Kobani, which have sparked renewed Kurdish accusations of Ankara turning a blind eye to ISIS’ activities, and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)’s electoral gains in the June 7 elections have precipitated the latest animosity between Erdogan and the Kurds. The once-promising Kurdish peace process in Turkey has come to an end with these elections, which catapulted the HDP’s leader, Selahattin Demirtas, to becoming Erdogan’s new arch political nemesis. Unlike the traditional and nationalist opposition parties that have long-standing ideological disputes with the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the HDP and Demirtas in particular made it personal to Erdogan. Further, old fears of a Kurdish homeland, which includes parts of Anatolia have returned with a vengeance amongst the Turkish political elite. President Erdogan’s once-warm relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, Masoud Barzani, helped stem the anger resulting from Ankara’s lukewarm response to the first Kobani offensive last fall, but this is no longer enough to prevent the clear splits in Kurdish and Turkish nationalism within the country and the region today.