Turkey has changed its Syria strategy as frequently as other warring parties have changed their tactics. Nonetheless, after a year of stalemate in Idlib against the Assad regime and several years of inconclusive adversarial policies against the Kurdish-led administration, Ankara faces the pressure of another strategy change. It can come in two ways: either as a shift in attitude towards the Kurdish administration or one towards the regime. It is not that the current strategy is not sustainable —that depends on the future of Turkey's adversarial collaboration with Russia —. but rather that it is politically costly.
In February 2020, Turkey launched a military attack against the Syrian regime, putting an end to a previous Russian-backed regime offensive. It followed the killing of dozens of Turkish soldiers in regime airstrikes. Confrontation by the Turkish military and negotiations between Moscow and Ankara resulted in the freezing of offensives against Hayet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) fighters. Since then, an uneasy stalemate has fallen between Turkey and the Assad regime in the northwest.
Several months earlier, in October 2019, an offensive against the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria resulted in Turkey taking control of Kurdish-majority Ras al-Ain (Serekaniye) and Arab-majority Tal Abyad — accounting for nearly a 9 thousand square km. The Turkish operation had received implicit backing from the former US administration, though it had to be much more limited than what Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had hoped for. Russia quickly filled the vacuum left by the US and restrained the Turkish incursion.
Overall, Turkey's military operations, political pressure, and diplomatic blockade against the Kurdish-led administrations have been inconclusive. Ankara succeeded in stopping any political recognition of the north-eastern Syrian administration, though the administration remains the US-led coalition's primary partner against the Islamic State. Moreover, the Kurdish-led administrations have so far survived Turkish, Russian, Iranian, and regime pressures alike.
The Turkish strategy is militarily sustainable as long as the delicate balancing act between Moscow and Ankara works. But politically, Turkey's goals are unattainable. Ankara is currently pursuing two contradictory political objectives in northeast and northwest Syria.
First and foremost, Turkey wants to stop the Kurdish-led administrations from receiving political recognition of any sort from the West. This includes preventing the administrations from taking part in any international platforms set up to resolve the conflict. Secondly Turkey wants to roll back all the territorial, military, and political gains of the Kurds.
How Ankara wants to see Kurdish-majority areas governed is in full display in its own governance of the previously Kurdish-majority region of Afrin and Ras al-ain, where the Kurds face constant political pressure and have lost some of their linguistic, political and cultural rights. As a best-case scenario, the Turkish government wants northern Syria to be controlled by pro-Ankara proxies. A second-best scenario would involve the complete restoration of the centralised regime authority, thereby ending any semblance of autonomy in the region.
Erdoğan's second goal —regarding the northwest — contradicts the first one —concerning the northeast. In the northwest, the Turkish government wants as much autonomy and political power as possible for the pro-Turkish Syrian armed factions, especially the Turkmen groups.
These two goals would practically lead to two separate Syrias: one with strong central control in faraway places, such as the northeast corner of the country, and a more decentralised and autonomous Syria in the northwest corner, which is quite close to the regime’s power centres.
These conflicting visions make Turkey’s aims politically unattainable. Unless the Turkish government redefines its purposes and alliance preferences, Syria will continue to cost Turkey with no apparent long-term gain.
Turkey's aims were very different at the outset of the conflict. Diverting from the British and French policy of maximum pressure to topple Bashar al-Assad's government, Ankara offered to mediate. Later on, the Turkish government fell in line with the West. As such, Turkish security services assumed practical leadership of the broader Western strategy to back nearly anyone who opposed the Assad regime.
However, with the rise of radical opposition groups and an increasing number of refugees, the West turned away from a military intervention agenda. It gradually stopped providing lethal support to non-moderate sections of the armed Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, for Turkey, there was no stopping; leading to criticisms of Erdoğan’s tolerance of extremist actors across EU and US policy circles.
Erdoğan's final turn in Syria took place after the Kurdish-led rebels became partners with the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition in 2014.
Concerned that the Syrian Kurds may receive political recognition and unite their non-contiguous territories from Afrin in the West and Manbij in the east, Turkey sent its troops into action in Syria. Capturing the Jarablus, Azaz and Al-Bab triangle in 2016 from the Islamic State, Ankara inserted its military force between two Kurdish controlled regions. Ankara sees the leading Syrian Kurdish group, the People's Protection Units (YPG), as having direct operational links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting against Turkey since 1984. As such, Ankara has demonstrated that it is capable of sharp, strategic turns in Syria.
The current political configuration at the heart of Turkey’s ruling coalition, which is overwhelmingly Turkish nationalist, makes it unlikely for the country to change its strategy towards the Kurds. Ankara, however, may choose to take more steps towards the Assad regime. Russia has mediated between the countries and arranged the first publicly acknowledged meeting between the Turkish and Syrian spymasters in Moscow in January 2020. Unconfirmed reports from Turkish and Syrian sources suggest that Turkish delegations have also visited Damascus for talks.
Turkey's recent normalisation dialogue with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which pushed Ankara to start parting ways with the international Muslim Brotherhood movement, would make it easier for Turkey to find common ground with the Assad regime.
US support for Turkey against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan is unlikely to calm Turkey’s aversion against the Syrian Kurds. On the other hand, a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, which recently battled with the YPG in Hasakah, might incentivise Ankara to coordinate action with the regime against the Syrian Kurds.