As Erdogan Prepares for Elections, Syrians Pay the Price
Turkey’s pivotal 2023 elections are scheduled to be held in early May. For residents of northeast Syria, the vote means months of anxiety and anticipation at best—and aerial bombardment, blood, and tears at worst.
The zero hour for a new Turkish military incursion appears to be closer than ever. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander-in-chief General Mazloum Abdi said in a recent interview that he expects a Turkish attack on northeast Syria during the month of February.
Turkish leaders seem to be in dire need of a military operation before the upcoming elections. Turkey’s efforts to normalize relations with Syria, also related to Erdogan’s electoral concerns, may have damaging consequences as well.
War Before the Election
Turkey’s economy is in crisis. Five years ago, one dollar was worth less than four Turkish lira; today, it is worth almost 19. While the inflation rate has gone down slightly relative to recent months, it is still dangerously high. As a result, the wages of the middle class are no longer sufficient to live and the profits of merchants have shrunk.
Those who would complain about their situation are out of luck: Turkey’s expanding prison system is full of political opponents and critics. Questioning government abuses has become grounds for prosecution: Sebnem Korur Fincanci, the president of the Turkish Medical Association, was recently accused of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist group” after suggesting that the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Turkish army against PKK fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan be investigated.
Erdogan seeks to escape from these problems by convincing Turkish voters that their national security is threatened. This situation, according to Erdogan’s political philosophy, calls for a fight against “terrorist organizations” in Syria—the SDF, the partner of the Global Coalition in the war against ISIS.
Revealingly, Turkish authorities did not make such statements about the importance of securing the country’s southern border when ISIS was present there. Regional and international reports have revealed that most foreign ISIS members entered and exited Syria through Turkey. Today, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—which Washington, the European Union, and even Turkey classify as a terror group—is present along the Turkish border in Idlib. However, there are no calls from Turkey to stand against the al-Qaeda affiliate. On the contrary, there are open relations between the two parties.
Normalization with Assad
When Syria’s crisis began, Erdogan described Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as an illegitimate dictator. Turkey has supported armed anti-Assad factions, particularly Islamists, since the start of the war.
However, following more a decade of fighting that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, the Turkish president’s interests have shifted. Under Russian auspices, Turkey has begun the process of normalizing its relations with Syria.
Erdogan hopes to escalate deportations of Syrian refugees in Turkey in order to prevent the opposition from successfully mobilizing growing anti-refugee sentiment. He also seeks to deal a final blow to the SDF and the Autonomous Administration. A deal with Damascus could help him accomplish both. For Russia, these talks help drive a wedge between Turkey and its Western partners and consolidate the position of Moscow’s allies in Damascus.
The United States has reiterated that it rejects any and all normalization with the Syrian state. Assad himself, likely concerned that Erdogan’s goals are more related to the elections than any real shift in Syria policy, has also stipulated that any talks with Turkey be contingent on the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory.
Turkey’s ability to act in northeast Syria is above all constrained by the positions of Russia and the United States. Both governments know that a successful Turkish incursion is likely to boost Erdogan’s chances at the ballot box.
Even the most pessimistic Russian analysts did not expect Moscow’s war in Ukraine to continue for as long as it has. That conflict has direct impacts on the war in Syria. Russia will not oppose a new Turkish incursion in Syria if it can lead to gains in Ukraine, and likely hopes to strengthen the position of its allies in the Middle East in order to focus on the Ukraine conflict. It previously conceded Syria’s Afrin to Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of opposition factions from Ghouta and the region’s surrender to Assad. A new Turkish incursion would also be likely to increase tensions within NATO, further benefiting Russia’s interests.
Under former president Donald Trump, the United States was also willing to greenlight Turkish operations in Syria. The Biden administration, by contrast, claims that it would oppose such a development today.
U.S. officials warn that a Turkish ground incursion would threaten the gains of the war against ISIS, potentially allowing tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners and their families to go free. They also likely fear that Turkey will concede any newly occupied territory to Assad as a gift. Iran is also a key ally of Assad in the Syrian war, and recent Russian statements suggest it stands to benefit from any Turkish-Syrian rapprochement process that may occur at the AANES’ expense.
Amidst this uncertainty, one fact is clear: the region is going through a complex situation governed by international balances and trade-offs. The people of northeast Syria wish for stability and fear a new wave of war and displacement. While they cannot vote in Turkey’s elections, they may have the most to lose.
(Photo: Elif Sogut/Getty Images)