What's Turkey Trying to Achieve in Syria?

Turkish forces patrol an area in Afrin

Erdoğan is attempting to cement his political legitimacy among Syrian Sunnis by portraying himself as their savior.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and this is never truer than on the Syrian killing fields.

With the Islamic State’s surviving fighters relegated to small pockets of the most austere bastions of the Syrian desert, the Turkish army likely sees an opportunity to capture Syria’s northern border, in order to project power, consolidate territory and expand its own sphere of influence throughout the near abroad.

Turkey’s latest Syrian military incursion, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch,” was launched in mid-January against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the border city of Afrin, one of Syria’s autonomous cantons. Turkey’s objective was to deny the YPG a continuous corridor in the hilly northern Syrian border, where terrorist cadres have traveled back and forth unmolested since the onset of the Syrian Civil War. While the Turkish military and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army have advanced considerably to surround Afrin, and entered the city center on March 18,  the fifty-eighth day of the operation, many lives have been lost, including several dozen Turkish soldiers, over a hundred Free Syrian Army members and some three thousand YPG fighters, according to official Turkish statements.

Media observers of Turkey’s incursions argue that the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aims to mobilize his base at home with a “glorious little war” and to boost his cachet among surviving jihadist groups in the Middle East by directly countering the YPG, while indirectly challenging the United States by portraying himself as a leader willing to stand up to Washington.

For years, Erdoğan and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have expressed tacit support for Sunni groups, including some of their more extreme elements, in an attempt to isolate the Marxist-friendly YPG in Syria. The logic is simple: Turkey seeks to dominate northern Syria by using its local Syrian Sunni populations, even radical ones, as proxies.

Is such a plan viable? It is for Erdoğan.

There are 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Most of the refugees are Syrian Sunni Arabs who are beholden to Erdoğan for granting them refuge. For example, on February 9, more than sixty representatives of Syrian Arab tribes carried out a demonstration to support the Afrin operation by chanting slogans such as “Turkey will save Syria” in Mersin, Turkey. Many of them also see the YPG as an enemy of their faith.

Although the YPG administration insists it has evolved beyond the Marxist ideology of its founder, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, many in the region note the markers of Marxist-Leninist teachings in the YPG’s current ideology. Neither can the Syrian Arab asylees return to homes and land controlled today by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), currently the chief ally of the U.S. military. Further complicating the relationship is the longtime problem of forced military conscription of Arab teens into the ranks of the SDF, and lingering mistrust between the YPG Kurds and the Arabs.

Many Arabs also have recently started to voice their true feelings about the YPG-controlled SDF, For instance, an Arab schoolteacher in Manbij, Syria, recently claimed that “most Arabs in the town were unhappy with what they see as a Kurdish government, but were afraid to speak out for fear of arrest,” according to a New York Times report.