Issue Briefs

Turkey’s Operation into Northeast Syria: Anything But Unexpected

Turkey’s Operation into Northeast Syria: Anything But Unexpected

October 9, 2019 

Cenk Karatas

During the war of Manbij against ISIS a few years ago, I remember asking a high level US security official about American engagement with the YPG (Syrian Kurdish forces) and whether they had made any promises to the Syrian Kurds in exchange for their participation in the fight against ISIS. The official’s response had a twist:  “Superpowers don’t make promises, they just give hope.”

Turkey began its Syria military operation

Turkey initiated its military operation into Northeast Syria, following a sudden green light from the White House. In the last few days, we have seen a myriad of reactions to Trump’s decision and Turkey’s planned operation, along with a lot of misinformation. There are many dimensions to this issue, each of which makes some sense to explain a part of it. However, we would like to focus on the basics.

President Trump’s erratic foreign policy decisions and tactless style must not cloud the blunt truth that the US has been lacking a Syria policy since the beginning of the war. And it is not a secret that the war in Syria hurt Turkey probably more than any other neighboring country.

The Syria war and its impact on Turkey

The open door policy of Erdogan led to almost 4 million Syrian refugees in the country, with a total cost of 40 billion US dollars for the Turkish economy. The spillover effect of the war claimed dozens of lives in Turkey over the course of the last few years. Along the way, Ankara has made various attempts to end the war in Syria, some right and some wrong. But something has always been clear: on grounds of national security, Turkey would not allow a local government in Northern Syria that would involve any PKK related components. The moment the United States decided to form an alliance with these groups of Syrian Kurds in order to defeat ISIS, was the moment a clock started its countdown for this day to come. In other words, what we have on our plate now has been cooking for some time.

We can argue that Turkey could have explored some other ways to establish an understanding with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the past. But this does not change the fact that the US acted unilaterally in Syria, despite many Turkish protests. Instead of staging photo ops with SDF commanders near the Turkish border, the Pentagon could have come up with realistic plans addressing Turkey’s security concerns in Northern Syria. Sadly, those concerns were ignored.

Well, the past is in the past.

Turkey’s peace corridor

Now Turkey is in the process of building its own version of a “peace corridor” in Syria, unfortunately via a military campaign. In the end, the lack of constructive diplomacy and active cooperation between the US and Turkey –two NATO allies– will most likely lead to more human losses in Syria.

What this would mean for the millions of displaced Syrians is another big question, with no easy answer at the moment.


 Cenk Karatas is a Washington based senior analyst on Turkish political affairs with a background in Turkish and international media, and a Fellow at the   Global Policy Institute. He has been advising on Turkish politics for the leading Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun for over a decade. As a journalist, he   covered Turkish politics and regional affairs, reporting from conflict zones including Syrian and Iraqi borders, as well as Kurdish areas.