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Erdogan Has No Idea What He’s Doing in Syria

The Turkish president’s war will likely fail because he doesn’t know what he wants.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint press conference with Iranian and Russian counterparts following a trilateral meeting on Syria in Ankara on Sept. 16.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint press conference with Iranian and Russian counterparts following a trilateral meeting on Syria in Ankara on Sept. 16. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

In contrast to the profound confusion in Washington over the past two weeks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government have been relentlessly on message about their invasion of Syria. Operation Peace Spring, as Turkey calls it, is a counterterrorism operation, providing safety for Turks and Syrians alike—including Kurds. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is no different from the Islamic State. Full stop. No amount of international pressure and outrage has moved Ankara from these talking points.

Yet perhaps because the Turks have been so good at their messaging (mostly to other Turks), they have not been as clear on what it is they want to achieve in Syria over the longer term and how they will know when they achieve it. In sending its forces into Syria, the Turkish government seems to have four primary goals: make the establishment of a Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria impossible, boost Erdogan’s popularity, destroy the YPG, and resettle Syrian refugees.

It’s obvious that an autonomous Kurdish area in northeastern Syria is no longer imaginable and that Erdogan—whose domestic political support flagged in the previous six months—has benefited from the invasion. Turkey’s other two war aims are more complicated, however. It’s fair to wonder what Ankara’s strategy for achieving them is—and whether it even has one.

Strategy is a funny term. It’s often confused with tactics, which are the means to pursue a strategy. At the most basic level, developing strategy means outlining goals, matching those aims with national resources, understanding how enemies and allies will respond, and potentially reassessing a proposed approach based on the answers to these questions.

It is not at all clear that Erdogan and his advisors have gone through this exercise. There is no doubt that the Turkish military has the capability to push the YPG away from the border. Establishing a buffer zone that is roughly 20 miles deep and 275 miles long is something entirely different, however. It may not look like it from the maps on television and in the newspapers, but Turkey is talking about an area that is 5,500 square miles—almost three times the size of Delaware. Erdogan has taken up the idea of returning the country’s 3.5 million Syrian refugees to this area. This would require moving, and governing, a population about the size of Connecticut. Even a couple of hundred thousand seems like a logistical and public relations nightmare. People from Aleppo likely want to go back to Aleppo, not some place they do not call home, have no ties, and where the security situation is fraught.

If Erdogan plans to establish security and stability so that he can settle Syrians back in their home country, then his military operation would become an occupation. Does the Turkish government have a plan to avoid this outcome? The Turks risk being stuck in Syria, and while it has help from what Ankara is calling the Syrian National Army (what used to be called the Free Syrian Army), Erdogan does not seem to have a plan. And when you don’t have a plan, you become a target.

If the PKK is the YPG and the YPG is the PKK, then the people the Turks are currently fighting in Syria are the same people they have been fighting in Turkey on and off since 1984. Whatever military success they have had so far, the YPG and PKK are not built to hold territory. One can imagine that they will do what they have been doing for a long time—pursue a guerrilla campaign against Turkey in Syria and spill blood in Turkish cities. It is also not clear that Turkey’s leaders have grappled with the consequences of their difficult relations with other regional powers and what may become a long occupation of Syria. The Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis all have the capacity alone or together to support the YPG in an effort to make Operation Peace Spring costly for Erdogan. Payback is a bitch, as they say, and Ankara has done everything in its power to undermine the government of Egypt, delegitimize the Saudi crown prince, support the Emiratis’ antagonists, and provide diplomatic (as well as reportedly financial) cover for Hamas. In an odd confluence of interests, add Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of this anti-Erdogan coalition. He more than others has the motive and means to pin Turkey down in a costly battle. Assad has already declared Turkey’s invasion an egregious violation of Syrian sovereignty and called Erdogan a “thief.”

The Russian-Turkish 10-point plan that President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed to on Tuesday in Sochi, Russia, seems like it might do much to stabilize northern Syria. It is the role of diplomats and leaders to fit square pegs into round holes when necessary, but have officials in Ankara gamed out what the Russians are after? It seems to be different than what Turkey wants. For example, Erdogan wants a sphere of influence in northern Syria; Putin’s goal is to reconstitute Syrian government authority over all of its territory. The agreement says both countries respect Syria’s territorial integrity. The Turks also want to destroy the YPG, and the agreement indicates that Moscow and Ankara will work against all kinds of terrorism in northern Syria. It is important to note that Russia hosts an office of the YPG-affiliated Democratic Union Party in Moscow and the leading edge of Turkey’s invasion includes extremists by almost everyone’s definition—except Turkish leaders. Despite the agreement in Sochi, these significant differences will prove harder to paper over in time.

Also, have the Turks considered the possibility that Moscow is likely to play all ends of this new phase in the Syrian conflict, drawing Turkey further into Syria and closer to Moscow? Sure, Putin looks like a constructive interlocutor for Turkey, and Erdogan is a shrewd operator who often anticipates the moves of his opponents. Yet with the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, Turkey is vulnerable to Russian manipulation, if only because Ankara will need Moscow’s goodwill in an effort to achieve Turkish aims. The harder it becomes on the Turks, the more and more they will need Putin.

Among the biggest risks associated with military action is the uncertain endgame. Conflicts can spiral, taking on a life of their own and altering goals—often prolonging the fighting. The Israelis had very clear goals—both open and secret—and significant capability when they launched Operation Peace for Galilee in southern Lebanon in 1982, yet the Israel Defense Forces were bogged down there for almost two decades. When Israel withdrew in 2000, both Lebanese and Israelis were worse off. The Saudis were supposed to be in Yemen for three months; it has now been four years, and thousands upon thousands of people are dead.

It is unclear how Operation Peace Spring will end for Turkey in Syria. Maybe the Turks will avoid the pitfalls that entrapped the Saudis and Israelis. Still, the odds are that the foray next door will end differently than the way the Turks envision. It almost always does.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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