Following a vow he made last week that Turkey “will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria,” Turkish president Recep Erdogan has been suggesting military intervention in northern Syria to curb growing Kurdish autonomy.
But between Erdogan’s poor election standing, the threat of unrest in Turkish Kurdistan, and the Turkish military’s reported reluctance to be drawn into the Syrian quagmire, it is unlikely the nation will launch a military incursion along Syria’s northern border anytime soon.
“This is not the first time that Turkey has threatened to intervene since the Syrian civil war has begun, and in the past the bluster has been either an attempt to get NATO more involved or a domestic political gambit,” Michael Koplow, program director of the Israel Institute and an analyst of Middle Eastern politics, told Business Insider.
“Ultimately I think the far more likely scenario is looser rules of engagement for Turkish soldiers manning the Syrian border, and perhaps airstrikes, but no ground troops,” Koplow added.
Turkey has been heretofore reluctant to join the fighting on its border. Last year, Ankara watched a failed ISIS campaign to take the Syrian border city of Kobani after it was met with US airstrikes and fierce resistance from the Kurdish YPG militia.
Last week ISIS militants, disguised as YPG militiamen,
re-invaded Kobani, killing over 200 civilians in just over 48 hours. The militants were eventually driven out by Kurdish forces, who lateraccused Turkeyof allowing at least one ISIS bomber to cross freely into Kobani.
It remains unclear where the militants came from, and this is not the first time Turkey has been accused of letting ISIS thrive along its border.
Koplow noted that all evidence so far suggests that the fighters who overran Kobani last week did not come in from Turkey.
“But given the huge distrust of Ankara among Kurds — and Turkey’s obvious distress at the gains made by the [Syrian Kurdish party] PYD — the perception matters more than the truth at this point,” he added.
The PYD, for its part, has denied that it is trying to establish an autonomous state along the border. Nevertheless, following the fall of Syrian border city Tal Abyad to the Kurds in May,a pro-government newspaper declared theKurdish PYD to be “more dangerous than ISIS.”
Still, Erdogan currently lacks both the political and the popular support to wage a military incursion into northern Syria.
“There are a number of serious obstacles to Turkey putting boots on the ground in Syria,” Koplow noted, including “the fact that it will cause huge upheaval in southeastern Turkey if the operations are perceived to be aimed at tamping down Kurdish sovereignty in Syria” and the “unpopularity of the government’s Syria policy among Turks in general.”
Erdogan may also lack support from his own military: Generals have reportedly expressed reservations about getting drawn into the conflict for fear of retaliation attacks from both ISIS and Kurds inside Turkey, the Daily Beast reported.
They are also reluctant to take orders from a government that is “basically deposed,” an anonymous security source told Al-Monitor in Ankara. Erdogan’s governing Justice Development Party lost its parliamentary majority during elections in June.
“This risk really worries the military,” the source said. “Erdogan and the AKP [his political party], with their massive media power, could engineer a major perception of victory and use that to go for early elections.”
“Such an operation requires clear operational orders, a clear strategic goal, clear rules of engagement, clear definitions of friend and foe and a well-drawn-out calendar,” another source told Al-Monitor. “At the moment all these are very unclear, even obscure. Under such uncertainty, how can you issue operational and tactical orders to your units?”
Establishing a Turkish military presence within Syria without a clear strategic goal would mean, in some areas, the Turkish Army “fighting ISIS street to street,” Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told the New York Times.
“The rhetoric is getting overheated,” Stein said. “I think the possibility of a ground invasion is remote.”
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