It has been over six months since Turkey launched its foray into Syria named Operation Euphrates Shield. Examining the developments since, one cannot help but conclude that from a political, tactical and operational perspective Ankara’s intervention has been a failure.
From the outset, there was confusion about the Operation’s aims and objectives. First, it was to maintain Turkey’s border security by confronting the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. It also sought to prevent the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its associated fighting forces the People’s Protection Units (PYG), which Ankara claims are allied to the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from setting up a corridor in northern Syria. The YPG is the dominant force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting IS in northern Syria.
However, after just a couple of weeks of fighting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey’s aims were actually to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. This raised eyebrows in Russia and will have surprised the Syrian dictator’s supporter Russian President Vladimir Putin. Soon Ankara was obliged to back-pedal and clarify that the operation was only against “terror organisations”.
But Ankara has continued to move the goalposts. Fresh after its drawn-out battle for the city of Al-Bab, Turkey is currently spoiling for a fight against IS's main base in Raqqa, while also setting its sights on the Kurdish-held city of Manbij, with clashes already being reported. Clearly, Turkey’s eyes are larger than its stomach, but so far its battleground effectiveness has been lacklustre at best. Meanwhile, diplomatically it has been outmanoeuvred.
Back in August and September 2016, Turkish forces in Syria were doing reasonably well. Together with Syrian brigades, Turkish forces captured the border town of Jarabulus from IS and were soon taking surrounding villages held by both IS and the SDF. But things went downhill from there.
Following their approach to the western part of the strategic city of Al-Bab, Turkish-backed forces were either repelled or held back by IS's fierce resistance or by the SDF who were also trying to drive IS out. When Ankara was finally able to penetrate the city from the north, it received no support from the US or other Coalition forces. It took Turkey 16 weeks to fully capture a city that has a population of a mere 65,000.
The operation has also come with a significant human toll. Scores of Turkish soldiers have been killed and reports of fatalities are now a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, casualties among the multiple factions that Ankara supports, such as the Free Syrian Army, are in the hundreds.
In one incident alone in December 2016, IS killed 16 Turkish soldiers in Al-Bab. Also in December, the terror group released a video that purported to show two Turkish soldiers being burned to death while in chains. Unwilling to confirm the veracity of the reports (although admitting that the two soldiers had gone missing), the Turkish authorities simply issued a news blackout and a temporary ban on social media.
There have also been scores of civilian deaths. In early January, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an NGO, estimated that 292 civilians had been killed by Turkish fire since the start of the operation and hundreds more when factoring in civilian deaths at the hands of Turkey’s Syrian clients.
From the position of the anti-IS Coalition, Turkey’s advances have brought little gain, seeing that many of the towns and villages the Turkish forces have captured were already in the hands of Kurdish anti-IS forces. If anything, by fighting the PYD Turkey has contributed to divisions within the coalition, pushing the battle-effective Syrian Kurds towards Russia.
Indeed, while Turkey looks to launch an operation to take Manbij, the PYD has managed to outsmart Ankara by threatening to simply hand over the city to Al-Assad, preventing Turkey from making a large-scale incursion or facing the wrath of Putin.
What is more, the PYD represents a domestic Syrian fighting force with a stake in the country’s future. While Turkey might wish to sideline the group because of its alleged links to the PKK, the fact remains that the PYD is a Syrian actor that will have an interest in the future of Syria especially once the guns fall silent.
Marginalising the group will only lead to problems in the rebuilding of the Syrian state in the future, regardless of who is in charge. No wonder US general Stephen Townsend, the top US commander in Syria and Iraq, angered Ankara by stating that the YPG posed no threat to Turkey. He needs the group on side.
Apart from a small buffer zone in the north of Syria, Turkey’s intervention in the country has not seen any tangible results. The PYD is still strong, and the international community is loath to see Ankara involved in the forthcoming Raqqa operation against IS.
If anything, Turkey is now in a more vulnerable position diplomatically and is viewed with increasing suspicion by its traditional allies. Turkey chose to become an actor in the worst civil war the Middle East has ever seen, and the decision was a bad one.
The writer is a visiting fellow at King’s College, London, and co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents.