Friday, October 25, 2019

Turkey's Invasion Will Destabilize Northeast Syria

Key Takeaway: Turkey will not enhance its security through its invasion and occupation of Northeast Syria. The Turkish military lacks the operational reach and tolerance for military casualties required to fill the gap left by Syrian Kurdish-led forces. An assortment of militants will rush into the vacuum, posing both near- and long-term threats to the former protector of NATO’s southern flank. Turkey’s presence in Syria will not eliminate the threat of Kurdish-backed terrorism inside Turkey.

Turkey has limited the extent of its most recent invasion of Syrian territory to mitigate its lack of operational reach. The Russian-Turkish agreement achieved on October 22 calls for Syrian Kurdish fighters to move over 20 miles from the Turkish border.[1] However, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will only operate around six miles from the border.[2] Turkey accepted this deal with Russia precisely because Turkey does not have the operational reach to do it alone.

Neither Russia nor Turkey has pledged sufficient professional military forces to fill the security gap their agreement has created. Both states appear reluctant to deploy large military formations. Russia prioritizes safeguarding its military bases in Syria’s coastal provinces along the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey may have to secure its Kurdish-populated Southeastern provinces against local unrest.[3] Russia may have to deploy more military police to Syria or shift currently deployed forces away from the Syrian coast to execute this operation in the east.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using unreliable proxy forces in Syria because his ambitions exceed his current capacity, especially regarding logistics. Erdogan relies on brutal Syrian Opposition forces with extremist ties to avoid Turkish military casualties, especially after Erdogan’s extensive military purges. [4] A key Turkish proxy, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, filmed summary executions of bound Kurdish captives and assassinated female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf on October 12.[5] Ahrar al-Sharqiyah began as part of the Salafi-jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham, and has previously allied with al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay’at Tahrir al Sham).[6] Turkey’s reliance on extremist proxies for short-term convenience risks longer-term consequences, especially with proxies that routinely reflag and switch sides.

The casualties Erdogan seeks to avoid are inevitable. Kurdish fighters beyond the People’s Protection Units (YPG) will oppose Turkey’s most recent invasion, just as they are doing in Afrin.[7] Russian-Turkish joint patrols will become improvised explosive device (IED) magnets. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pledged support to any group that joins the counter-occupation effort.[8] Turkey will have difficulty defending itself amidst complex battlefield dynamics. All sides will take casualties.

A multi-sided war will unfold in Eastern Syria. Kurdish forces will withdraw from Turkish range to survive and regroup. Turkish-backed proxies will pursue the fleeing Kurds. ISIS militants will return to lost territory.[9] Russian mercenaries and Iranian proxies may move to seize oil resources. Stability will not spontaneously emerge in this security vacuum. Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” will make Northeast Syria anything but safe.

[1] John Dunford, “Crisis Brief: Significance of the Turkey-Russia Meeting on Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, October 25, 2019,
[2] Carlotta Gal and Patrick Kingsley, “Turkey Halts Syrian Incursion, Hours After Deal with Russia,” The New York Times, October 23, 2019,
[3] Umit Ozdal, “Turkey Ousts Three Kurdish Mayors for Suspected Militant Links, Launches Security Operation,” Reuters, August 19, 2019,
[4] Sarah el Deeb and Joseph Krauss, “Money, Hatred for the Kurds Drives Turkey’s Syrian fighters,” Associated Press, October 15, 2019,; Peter Muller and Maximilian Popp, “Purges Have Weakened the Once Mighty Turkish Military,”Spiegel Online, January 18, 2017,
[5] “Syria War: Executions Condemned As Violence Continues ‘On Both Sides’ of Border with Turkey, UN News, October 15, 2019,
[6] Enab Balai, “Ahrar al-Sharquiya Brigade”: The Potential Spearhead of East of Euphrates Battles, November 11, 2018,; Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande, “Syrian Opposition Guide”, Institute for the Study of War, October 7, 2015,
[7] Amberin Zaman, Turkey faces growing Kurdish insurgency in Syria’s Afrin, March 4, 2019, Al Monitor,; Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella, “Turkey Escalates Against Pro-Assad Forces to Protect Afrin Operation,” Institute for the Study of War, January 30, 2019,
[8] Tom O’Connor, Syria’s Assad Visits War Zone, Is ‘Ready to Support Any Troup That Resists’ Turkey, October 22, 2019, Newsweek,
[9] Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, July 23, 2019,