Turkey’s impending invasion of northern Syria likely results from “political reasons” rather than a national security need, and it remains unclear how officials will declare “mission success,” experts told Fox News Digital.
“This is a politically motivated military incursion rather than a sort of, you know, tactically sound or, you know, strategically oriented ambition,” Sinan Ciddi, an expert on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “The timing of this operation will have been much closer to the upcoming Turkish presidential election, so they can reap maximum political benefit out of it.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week ordered a series of airstrikes against Kurdish militias in northern Syria and vowed to order a land invasion of the territory as tensions surrounding border disputes peaked.
Turkey launched the attacks in response to a deadly bombing on Nov. 13 in Istanbul. Authorities arrested a woman of Arab-Syrian background whom they linked to the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The militias denied any involvement, but that did not stop Erdogan from authorizing a military response.
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The Pentagon urged Turkey to stand down on its plan to invade Syria as U.S. officials warned that the operation could endanger U.S. troops in the country.
A spokesperson for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., told Fox News Digital that officials have “time and again pointed out threats against our national security, posed by the PKK/YPG terrorist network in Syria and Iraq.”
“We have always called for unequivocal and genuine solidarity in the face of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” the spokesperson said. “Notwithstanding, the terrorist organization continued its attacks, recently targeting innocent civilians in the heart of Istanbul.”
The spokesman pointed to Turkey’s commitment to help fight DAESH – the Arabic name for ISIS – and is “the only NATO ally that has put boots on the ground and fought DAESH chest-to-chest since the outset,” even though U.S. officials have warned that the invasion could lead to the release of detained ISIS members.
Sinam Sherkany Mohamad, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council mission in the U.S., said that democratic forces – located in northern and eastern Syria – remain prepared for the invasion but “hope it will not happen.”
“We don’t want war, we don’t want to create another conflict zone in the region,” Mohamad said. “We already, as Syria, suffered a lot [in] 12 years from the Syrian crisis, so we don’t want to create another conflict zone or a war in the region that is not in the interest of anyone, neither the United States nor Syrian nor Turkey.”
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“We hope that the international community and the main powers, like Russia and the United States, could stop us from [facing] any ground invasion in the coming [days and weeks],” she added.
Mohamad praised the U.S. efforts to pressure Turkey to prevent the invasion from happening, echoing concerns for U.S. troop safety, and she urged U.S. officials to consider sanctions against Turkey should Erdogan authorize the invasion.
“There are many mechanisms that the U.S. administration can do to prevent Turkey from this ground invasion,” she said, stressing that any invasion would result in a “humanitarian catastrophe” with millions of displaced people.
Erdogan previously suggested the establishment of a “safe zone” for refugees in northern Syria, and on Nov. 25 he vowed to follow through on his plan after carrying out the airstrikes. He raised the issue during a call on Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, underscoring the “importance and urgency” of creating a “security corridor” between the two countries through Syria, and the Kremlin said the Russian and Turkish defense and foreign ministries would maintain “close contacts.”
During a televised speech last week, Erdogan said that a “security zone” would protect “the rights of millions of women and children” and his government would work to “complete this [zone] along the border from the west to the east as soon as possible.”
But while Turkey can tout its need for a “safe zone,” experts argue that Erdogan’s goal is purely political, aimed at distracting Turks from the economic problems facing the country.
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“I would say this is an operation … essentially [aims to] divert public attention in Turkey away from the state of the ailing economy and people’s anger towards an external sort of manufactured crisis following the terrorist attack that occurred in Istanbul back in mid-November,” Ciddi explained, clarifying that while the bombing is real, Erdogan’s government has not provided “any credible information” to link the Kurdish militias to the attack.
“Why just accuse the YPG without any credible or substantial or solid information? Because that’s an easy go to the Kurdish issue,” Ciddi said. “Blaming Kurds is one thing to get the nationalist sort of base and rally around the flag of angst going on in Turkey simply because Erdogan is up against a wall, essentially, electorally speaking.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, explained that military action will align with the goal of creating a “safe zone” as Erdogan will aim to capture more YPG areas and “break this into more pieces.”
“Turkey, through foreign incursions in the last five years, has broken this entity up into multiple pieces, and now it wants to do another incursion to break, create another incision,” Cagaptay said.
More important may be Erdogan’s relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: Turkey has backed Syrian rebels that Assad has driven back across the past decade to their last stronghold in the country’s northwest. Russia and Iran have supported Assad’s regime.
But recent signs indicate that Turkey and Syria have started working toward thawing that icy dynamic. In September, Turkey’s intelligence chief held multiple meetings with his Syrian counterpart as Russia encouraged more cooperation between the two countries.
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Cagaptay believes that Erdogan’s action in Syria could play into that equation if Turkey can absorb those parts in return for support and recognition, which would in turn possibly lead to an end to the long-running war in Syria.
“Assad is going to say, ‘What are you going to do for me?’ and Erdogan is going to say, ‘I recognize you, a Syrian sovereign, sorry for everything I have done,’” Cagaptay said. “And I think that’s how the war is probably going to end in Syria.”
Kemal Kirişci, a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, noted that Erdogan sits in a precarious position as his intentions and loyalties remain unclear.
“[Erdogan is] playing around with becoming a member of the Shanghai [Cooperation], and then he’s giving Greece a hard time, etc.,” Kirişci said. “On the surface of it, it looks like he wants to take Turkey away from the West … ideologically, this is what his preference is.”
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“Erdogan is very conscious that he cannot afford to be on its own facing the Russian bear,” he added. “And he’s also extremely aware that he has become too dependent on Putin and Russia.”
Reuters contributed to this report.