Turkish Military Expedition in North-Eastern Syria: Actions and Reactions

 By Dr. Manjari Singh

It is rare that Middle East is not in news and majority of the times, the news is a bad one! The most recent highlights being the Turkish alleged invasion in Syria to wipe out Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from north-eastern Syria. According to Turkish government, the SDF provides safe haven to its declared terrorist organisation, a Kurds led and Kurd owned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which has its base in south-eastern parts of Turkey. However, Ankara’s unilateral military action has raised lot of eyebrows/concerns, rather angered some major players both in the region as well as internationally.

On 6 October, President Donald Trump made a twitter announcement and ordered the American troops to withdraw from north-eastern Syria where the US had been supporting its Kurdish allies, the SDF.[i]Initially, it felt that maybe the American President was in congruence with the Turkish plan to create a buffer zone in Syria. As, just three days after his announcement, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring, a military expedition in north-eastern Syria to create a ‘safe zone’ to relocate Syrian refugees who had fled to Turkey since 2011; the operation was also targeted to expel the SDF from the region.[ii] The latter has been alleged by Ankara of controlling areas along the Turkish-Syrian border and which is mostly Kurdish populated. Since long, Turkey has been opposing and does not recognise the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in north-east Syria which it views as undermining its own security.[iii]Therefore, by having a Turkish-controlled ‘safe zone’ in Syria, Ankara plans to neutralise the “terror corridor” allegedly run by SDF.[iv] The operations are conducted by joint forces of Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and Turkish-allied opposition in Syria namely Syrian National Army (SNA) was against areas under the control of Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) and SDF.

It is noteworthy that SDF is viewed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey because of its links with another terrorist organisation recognised by Ankara, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has its base in south-eastern Turkey. The Turks have been facing Kurdish insurgency led by PKK since 1984 and in the same year the government declared PKK as a terrorist organisation. Therefore, SDF and PKK, both controlling north-eastern Syria and south-eastern Turkey respectively would strengthen the autonomous Kurdish region (called Rojava) in north-eastern part of Syria and to extension to south-eastern parts of Turkey and this poses a serious national security concern for the Turks. This is why, Turkey has been opposing the creation of autonomous Kurdish region and thus creation of a ‘safe zone’ free from Kurdish interference is crucial for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led government.

Therefore, it is pertinent to understand what Turkey implies when it says that it wants to create a ‘safe zone’? The proposed ‘safe zone’ as per President Erdogan, will be established along the south-eastern border of Turkey and will stretch along by 480-kilometre-long and 30-kilometre-deep into Syria. On 24 September, in his address at the 74th United nations General Assembly (UNGA), President Erdogan presented an elaborate plan on the zone and stated that the primary objective to create the zone is to relocate the 2 million Syrian refugees which have taken refuge in Turkey since 2011.[v]

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of the 4 million registered refugees in Turkey 3.6 million are of Syrian origin; the rest comprises of Afghans, Iraqi, Iranians, Somalis and other nationalities.[vi] The total population of the country stands at 83 million which suggests that only 4.3 per cent of the total residents in Turkey are Syrians which is a moderate addition to the population when compared to other countries in the region hosting Syrians such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.[vii] However, the Turkish government has now become vocal of the problems associated with hosting the refugees especially in terms of increasing economic constraints (Turkey claimed that it has spent around US$4 billion in housing and welfare of the Syrians) and social issues.[viii]To draw a parallel, much has been spent by other countries hosting the refugees, such as Jordan spent US$518 millions way back in 2013 alone, on energy and water consumed by the Syrians.[ix] Moreover, unlike other host countries as stated above (wherein majority of the refugees from Syria have mixed with the local communities and live in urban areas thereby putting more pressure on the limited economic and national resources), in Turkey majority of the Syrian refugees are settled in the south-eastern part of the country in the Hatay, Gaziantep and Sanliurfa provinces (and some reside in Istanbul) which are not only under-populated but also not advanced.[x]

Notably, when Turkey says it wants to shift 2 million Syrian refugees back to Syria it implies the ones dwelling in these three provinces. These suggest that the Turkish claim of shifting the Syrians back to their home because of national and regional concerns is not the main idea behind its proposed buffer zone. Moreover, this is the region where the PKK has its control. This is the reason why some call Turkish approach a “sham”.[xi]

However, Turkey’s plan for the creation of a buffer zone runs contrary to that of many regional and international actors and there are a lot of criticisms against and apprehensions regarding Turkey’s unilateral military approach towards the ‘safe zone’ creation primarily because: one, such actions undermine the territorial integrity of Syria; two, the proposed ‘safe zone’ would lead to ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kurds who are already residing there and the Syrian population which is to be installed in the zone is primarily Sunni Arabs and Turks[xii] hence is an existential challenge for the Kurds; three, the zone will not be safe for the Syrian refugees to reside as they share anti-Syrian regime ideology and are seen as traitors by the Assad regime; four, the SDF were supported by the US against its fight with the ISIS and had proved to be the best local force against the terrorist outfit and thus America is unwilling to let go of them and therefore is not in favour of the Turkish plan that undermines the SDF and autonomous Kurdish region; five, Turkish operation has led to freeing of many ISIS fighters (to be specific more than 750 ISIS prisoners) who were in Syrian prison until now and thus re-emergence of ISIS in the region will be a bigger threat.[xiii]

While, the US had allowed for a narrow ‘peace corridor’, a wider ‘safe zone’ is unacceptable to the Americans.[xiv] Along with the US, the countries who opposed the Turkish military excursion are Russia, Iran, India, European Union, Arab League, the United Kingdom, Israel and Syria. Russia and Iran, though sympathetic to Turkish security concerns have shown disinterest in the plan and Iran has called out for Turkish restraint as the invasions will undermine Syria’s sovereignty, an important ally of the Persian state and the Syrian refugees in Turkey are anti-Assad regime and thus challenge the authority of the Syrian regime. Syria shares the same concern on its land. This has pushed the three, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus to escalate their assault in north-west Idlib, where the Turkish backed opposition holds control.

The most notable and interesting response came from India. For the first time, the Ministry of External Affairs in its press release dated 10 October, condemned the Turkish operations. Calling it a “military offensive”, India showed its concerns on how the Turkish actions have undermined the regional stability and has violated the Syrian territorial integrity and sovereignty. Finally, New Delhi called on Turkey to “exercise restraint” and to solve the issue through dialogue and discussion.[xv]According to the media reports, India’s official statement on the matter needs to be seen against the backdrop of Turkey’s unconditional support to Pakistan on Kashmir issue and most importantly on the abrogation of Article 370.[xvi]

Hence, the proposed ‘safe zone’ is not only unsafe and unsustainable but has brought in many actors again to the field in Syria. On the day when Turkey started Operation Peace Spring, President Trump in a letter to President Erdogan inviting to strike a “deal” and emphasised that “you don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy – and I will.”[xvii] However, owing to Ankara’s belligerence, on 14 October, President Trump imposed economic sanctions against the Turkish ministries of Defence, Interior and Energy, and has announced that the US is halting over US$100 billion trade deal and doubling tariffs on imports of Turkish steel. Additionally, he called for a ceasefire.[xviii]

On 17 October, American Vice President Mike Pence and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed to Turkey to have a talk with President Erdogan seeking for a ceasefire. Given that, Ankara’s main concern is to shoo away Kurds from north-eastern Syria; the proposed American “deal” seems be expensive for American exchequer. While there is no clarity as of now as to what comprises of the deal but it will definitely not be in favour of or of much help to the SDF or to the Kurds. The fact that second head of state and key decision makers of US policy flew to Ankara to call for a ceasefire signals that President Erdogan realises that the ball is in his court and thus will not give in easy! Nonetheless, success in this venture is crucial to the US and most importantly for the region to maintain its stability. On balance, the Middle East continues to remain in a turmoil and in a state of flux. Turkey’s viewpoint notwithstanding, such actions could spiral into larger conflict with participation by large number of stakeholders.


[i]Donald Trump (2019), Official Twitter Handle, 6 October, Available at:https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1183376270731763714, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[ii]Faruk Zorlu (2019), “Turkish Troops Advance Into Northern Syria”, AA.com, 10 October, Available at: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/operation-peace-spring/turkish-troops-advance-into-northern-syria/1608059, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[iii]Md. MuddassirQuamar (2019), “Will Turkey be Able to Establish a ‘Safe Zone’ in Syria?”, IDSA Comment, 11 October, Available at: https://idsa.in/idsacomments/turkey-safe-zone-in-syria-mmquamar-111019, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[iv] Ibid.

[v]Youtube.com (2019), “Turkey – President Addresses General Debate”, 74th UNGA Session, 24 September, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bve1yt0SEb4, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[vi]UNHCR (2019), “Turkey: Key Facts and Figures”, August, Available at: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/71512, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[vii]Worldometer.info (2019), “Turkey Population: 1950-2019”, Available at: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/turkey-population/, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[viii]ServetGenerigok (2019), “Erdogan Prevented Scattering of Syrian Refugees”, AA.com, 10 October, Available at: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/americas/erdogan-prevented-scattering-of-syrian-refugees-trump/1607989, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[ix]PR Kumaraswamy and Manjari Singh (2017), “Population Pressure in Jordan and the Role of Syrian Refugees” Migration and Development, Vol. 6, Issue 3, pp-412-427.

[x]UNHCR (2019), “Turkey: Provincial Breakdown of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers”, 5 September, Available at: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/71505, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[xi]Asoke Mukherjee (2019), “Turkey’s ‘Operation Peace Spring’ is a Sham”, Air World Service, 12 October, Available at: http://airworldservice.org/english/archives/96839, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[xii]Wladimir van Wilgenburg and Amy Austin Holmes (2019), “The International Community Must Stop Turkey’s Ethnic Cleansing Plans in Northern Syria”, The Washington Post, 12 October, Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/11/international-community-must-stop-turkeys-ethnic-cleansing-plans-northern-syria/, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[xiii]Bethan McKernan (2019), “At Least 750 ISIS Affiliates Escape Syria Camp After Turkish Shelling”, The Guardian, 13 October, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/13/kurds-say-785-isis-affiliates-have-escaped-camp-after-turkish-shelling, Accessed on 17 October 2019.

[xiv]Md. MuddassirQuamar (2019), “Will Turkey be Able to Establish a ‘Safe Zone’ in Syria?”, IDSA Comment, 11 October, Available at: https://idsa.in/idsacomments/turkey-safe-zone-in-syria-mmquamar-111019, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[xv]Ministry of External affairs (2019), “Unilateral Military Offensive by Turkey”, Government of India, 10 October, Available at:https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/31926/Unilateral_military_offensive_by_Turkey, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[xvi] Elizabeth Roche (2019), “India Slams Turkey for Its ‘Unilateral Military Offensive’ in NorthEast Syria”, LiveMint, 10 October, Available at: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/india-slams-turkey-for-its-unilateral-military-offensive-in-northeast-syria-11570717628847.html, Accessed on 17 October 2019.

[xvii]The Guardian (2019), “Donald Trump’s Bizarre, Threatening Letter to  Erdogan: ‘Don’t be a Fool’”, 9 October, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/oct/16/trump-letter-erdogan-turkey-invasion, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

[xviii]Alan Rappeport and Michael Crowley (2019), “Trump Imposes Sanctions on Turkey as Syria Conflict Intensifies”, The New York Times, 14 October, Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/us/politics/trump-turkey-tariffs.html, Accessed on 15 October 2019.

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Dr. Manjari Singh is an Associate Fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and she obtained her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her thesis on Sustainable Development in Jordan: A Study of Social, Economic and Environmental Dimensions. Dr. Singh is a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow and is specializes in sustainable development and the Middle East. Her research papers have appeared in international journals such as Contemporary Review of the Middle East, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Migration and Development. She has co-authored Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan) and has co-edited Islamic Movements in the Middle East: Ideologies, Practices and Political Participation (New Delhi: Knowledge World) and Challenges to National Security: Young Scholars Perspective (New Delhi: Pentagon Press)She also serves as Assistant Editor of Contemporary Review of the Middle East (Sage Publications) and Managing Editor of CLAWS Journal (KW Publishers).