Operation Peace Spring
Turkey’s military offence in northern Syria
Aftab H. Wahla
West-instigated ‘democratization’ of the Middle East, i.e. the Arab Spring, continues to devastate the region with endless, brutal civil wars, foreign interventions, unstable and fragile democratic regimes, instrumentalization of proxy wars, expansionist policies of regional countries, intensification of sectarian and nationalist propensities, mass displacement-led refugee crisis, the emergence of terror outfits in the power vacuum created with weakening of central governments and so on. The helplessness of the states to establish their writ within their own territorial boundaries has long provided an enabling environment for non-state actors to gain relevance in the national polity. Syria is one of the countries in this region that was hit hardest by the wave of Arab Spring. Although eight years have passed since the triumphant march against the so-called caliphate of ISIS, Assad regime has yet to re-establish its complete writ over Syria as there remain large swathes of land where the militants have established their parallel governments. In northwest and northeast of Syria, Kurds had strong presence and they enjoyed the complete autonomy until Turkey launched its Operation Peace Spring a few weeks ago. Before we dwell upon the underlying objectives and consequences of the operation, it is apt to briefly discuss the post-war history of the Kurds in order to better understand the significance of the Turkish offensive in larger regional perspective.
With a population of over 30 million people, the Kurds inhabit mountainous region straddling Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Armenia. They are considered the world’s largest ethnic group without a state.
The Kurds’ struggle for a separate homeland – they call Kurdistan – spans over a century. The story begins in 1920 when the victorious Allies, in reward for Kurds’ invaluable services in First World War, made provision of an independent state for Kurds in Treaty of Sèvres. They, however, reneged on that as the Treaty of Lausanne, which demarcated modern Turkey, did not mention a Kurdish state; instead, Kurd-dominated or controlled territories were carved up into modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurds resented and rebelled, but their rebellions were crushed by their new Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish masters. From WWI to the Gulf War, Kurds kept on fighting for sovereignty, or greater autonomy, in their respective countries. They faced prosecution, ruthless suppression and political victimization. In Iraq, they gained some grounds in terms of autonomy. Iraqi Kurds succeeded in establishing strategic ties with Iran and Israel in the 1960’s before Saddam’s Baath party came to power. They had even established an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992 as a result of the US-launched Operation Provide Comfort which provided for a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. In 2017, Kurdish Regional Government conducted a referendum and after gaining an overwhelming public response, it announced secession from Baghdad-based central government.
Contrary to this, Syrian Kurds failed to attract foreign assistance. Though they laid the foundation of a mini-state with Raqqa as the capital during Syrian conflict, it was quickly overrun by ISIS. The Kurds, thus, remained politically suppressed, economically deprived and socially marginalized throughout their political history.
The US-led destabilization of Iraq, Arab Spring-caused civil war in Syria and rise of self-proclaimed caliphate, ISIS, helped Kurds to reassert themselves on the strategic chessboard of the Middle East. Particularly, Syrian Kurds emerged as one of the most important regional players after the Islamic State-led blitzkrieg that stunned the world with occupation of vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds launched a counter-offensive to contain the ISIS expansion and retake the lost territories. Soon, the US-led coalition joined the Kurd-led counter offensive and began providing assistance in the form of airstrikes and strategic and tactical planning. Peshmerga, the armed wing of Iraqi Kurds and People’s Protection Unit (YPG), which is an armed wing of Syrian Democratic Forces, proved most reliable and resilient forces against IS expansion. With the help of US-led coalition airstrikes, weapons and military advisors, Peshmerga proved instrumental to eliminating ISIS in Iraq. The SDF drove ISIS militants steadily out of tens of thousands of square kilometers of territory and established an autonomous region in northeast Syria along the Turkish border. The SDF also re-captured Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Syrian Kurd mini-state, which effectively ended the proto-state infrastructure of ISIS and paved the way for Kurds to further consolidate their captured territories with policing and imposition of civil laws in the area stretching from northwest to northeast Syria.
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring would have far-reaching consequences for the regional peace and security. The explications of the repercussions remain incomplete and inexhaustible unless we dig up the underlying objectives of the operation that has the potential to fundamentally transform the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
Very presence of a Kurdish autonomous region along the southern border of Turkey has long irritated the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who fears that YPG, the offshoot of Kurdistan Worker Party, an armed group outlawed by Turkey, can intensify the PKK-led, 29-year-old insurgency in Turkey. PKK was established by a Kurdish student leader, Abdullah Oscalan, in 1979 and it has been involved in armed struggle against the Turkish government since 1984 to secure independence for Kurds. The conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives and caused havoc to southeastern provinces, thereby compelling the central government to undertake military operations and political negotiation sporadically to end the conflict.
The active presence of Kurds in northern Syria forced Turkey to launch multiple military offences in the past as well. All of them were lunched to disrupt the potential collaboration between Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Before Operation Peace Spring, Turkey had launched Operation Euphrates Yield in 2016 to contain ISIS expansion towards northwest Syria, and Operation Olive Branch in 2018 to deprive YPG-PKK of sanctuaries in Afrin region. Succinctly, the prime objective of the latest operation is to end the physical presence of Kurds in northern Syria, and establish a buffer zone against any possible threats emanating from PKK by pushing Kurds back deep in Syria.
Another interlinked strategic objective that Turkey aspires to achieve is the establishment of a safe zone in Syria in order to resettle about 2 million refugees. The proposed safe zone would extend 32 kilometres inside the Syrian territory and stretch over 444 kms alongside the border. While addressing this year’s UNGA session, Turkish President discussed the importance of the safe zone with the world community, and later informed the United States about his plan. Resultantly, US withdrew its 1000 troops from the region that Turkey aspired to convert into a safe zone. Seizing upon the opportunity, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring on October 9, 2019, and after rapid advancement and occupying strategically important towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain), it signed truce agreement with US Vice President, Mike Pence, on October 18. The deal resulted in withdrawing SDF troops out of 30 km wide and 120 km long area, and setting up of safe zone, albeit on a smaller area hoped by Turkey before launching of operation, for resettlement of some of 3.6 million refugees currently hosted by Turkey since inception of Syrian civil war.
In a bid to further consolidate its achievements on ground, Turkey signed another agreement with Russia in Black Sea resort, Sochi, and formalized the withdrawal of YPG-PKK troops from those border towns as well where Assad’s forces were there to reinforce the Kurd defence after SPD called Assad for help in view of overwhelming Turkish offence. Under the Sochi agreement, both Turkey and Russia agreed to conduct joint patrol in the east and west of 120-km-long Turkey-controlled safe zone.
Now that the Turkish offensive has ended, amid sporadic skirmishes, and both Russia and Turkey have started joint patrol, it is no exaggeration to say that Turkey has achieved what it intended to gain: removal of YPG-PKK troops and a Turkish-controlled enclave in Syria for resettlement of refugee. Despite the fact that the safe zone would consist of a smaller area, the removal of YPG fighters from large swathes of Turkey-Syria border, and ensuing drastic reduction in their capability to support any kind of Turkish Kurdistan are enough to alleviate the Turkish concerns.
Nonetheless, the short yet intense Operation Peace Spring would have wide-ranging and far-reaching consequences for regional peace and security. It is pertinent here to highlight the possible repercussions or ramifications of the Turkish offensive.
Though US president, Donald Trump, came to power with the mandate of isolationist and unilateralist foreign policy including avoidance of involvement in foreign wars, his abrupt deviation from long-pursued US foreign policy stunned the world. From Paris agreement to P5-Iran nuclear deal, from Trans Pacific Partnership to North America Free Trade Agreement, Trump made it evidently clear to the world that era of US-led advocacy for multilateralism and rule-based international order is over. Trump’s attitude during the Operation Peace Spring has further reinforced the impression. With sudden drawdown of troops in Northern Syria, US demonstrated that it has no regard for its allies. Despite the fact that Peshmerga and SDF played a decisive role in the defeat of ISIS and it lost 10,000 troops in this long fight, US precipitous decision of abandoning them and tacitly allowing Turkish offence has seriously dented the credibility and repute of Trump administration. There is no denying the fact that Operation Peace Spring has made it unambiguously clear that world’s sole military superpower is no more interested in playing the role of a policeman in world affairs. There are legitimate concerns that Turkish offence-like unilateral incursions would be carried out more frequently by other populist and far-right leadership with complete impunity that could have dire consequences for global peace and security.
Taking the opportunity of post-Arab Spring anarchy, Syrian opposition occupied the large territories along Turkish border. The opposition, which was spearheaded by YPG and militant wing of SDF, established a parallel government there. Obviously, the autonomous status was a blatant challenge to Syrian territorial integrity and sovereignty which long bothered Assad and his close ally Russia. The operation has proved bolt from the blue for the Assad regime as Turkey, in turn for removal of YPG along its border, did not bother the deployment of Syrian troops in border towns. Russia, that has established itself indisputably vital stakeholder in ever-compounding Syrian civil war, is employing all available tools to sort out the things amicably and maintain status quo. With joint patrol with Turkey in the east and west of safe zone and close collaboration with Damascus, Russia has tremendously enhanced the writ of the Assad regime. It is safe to conclude that Operation Peace Spring has acted, unexpectedly, in Assad’s favour by bringing about tectonic shift in regional alliances and increasing the legitimacy of Russian backed and West-opposed Assad.
The operation has also multiplied the Russian influence in Syria. With quick deployment of Russian troops in the areas left vacant due to precipitous drawdown of US troops, Putin is filling the power void in northern Syria. Politically, Russia is also occupying the centre stage in the ongoing crisis. It is now convincing both Damascus and Ankara to revive Adana Agreement which is evident in the fourth point of Sochi Accord which underlines the importance of Adana Agreement in Turk-Syria relations, and reiterated Russian intention to implement the agreement. The agreement was signed in 1999 and envisioned close security cooperation between Syria and Turkey. With every passing day, it is increasingly becoming clear that Russia is emerging as an uncontested power in the Middle East when it comes to hot-pursuit of long-term strategic interests among global powers.
There are legitimate concerns about resurrection of ISIS, at least in terms of its asymmetric capabilities to carry out guerilla warfare. In this regard, the collapse of Kurd’s autonomous region due to Operation Peace Spring and death of ISIS supremo and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on October 26, 2019 by US forces in Syria can be cited as the reason. As it has earlier been discussed, the SDF-led counter attack resulted into Kurd-controlled territory and imprisonment of nearly 12,000 ISIS fighters. Now that Kurds have lost the major portion of their land with critical infrastructure and human resources to guard detention centers, there are serious threats that escaped fighters would rejoin the ranks of ISIS, thereby enabling their vengeful leadership to unleash another wave of terrorism in a bid to reactivate sleeper cells. The previous counter insurgency experiences indicate that decapitation strikes rarely reduce the lethality of terrorist outfits as their hierarchical organization are not vertically, instead their field commanders enjoy operational and tactical autonomy, thus making them least vulnerable towards change or elimination of top leaders. Same can be said about ISIS. The weakening of Kurd’s counter insurgency capabilities and Baghdadi’s death-caused vengeance do no bode well for global peace and security.
Notwithstanding the fact that that Ankara has legitimate security concerns due to the presence of PKK-YPG fighters along its southern border and it can offer quite plausible explanation for unilateral military incursion and violation of sovereignty of Syria, the modus operandi cannot be justified as per the international law and the UN Charter. In addition, Erdoğan’s plan of securing 20-mile deep corridor running 300 miles along could not be materialized, thereby making the very plan of resettlement of above 2 million refugees in Turkish-controlled safe zone too much ambitious and unrealistic. The forced repatriation is bound to create demographic and humanitarian consequences with further destabilization of Syria. Another aspect of this latest unilateralism is that the world has increasingly become accommodative for populism- and far-rightism-led blatant transgression of international norms and laws. One can hope that Russia and Turkey would sort out the differences and hammer out the strategies to put the trilateral Astana Process back on implementation track.