As Turkish threats against areas of northern Syria held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) intensify, the Syrian government is likely to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of any escalation.
On the surface, this may appear to be a surprising development. Turkey has supported Syrian opposition groups since the start of the Syrian crisis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior officials have long claimed that their primary goal in Syria is the fall of the Assad regime.
Yet events over the past several years have made it obvious that Turkey’s true priority is the destruction of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Recent threats suggest that Turkey may see the Syrian government as a partner in this endeavor.
On July 27, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised interview shared by Turkish state broadcaster Anadolu Agency that “Turkey will give all political support to the Syrian regime to expel the terrorists,” referring to the SDF. This is the first time since the start of the Syrian crisis that a Turkish official has announced that Turkey is prepared to work with the Assad regime, signaling a dangerous shift in the former’s political attitudes.
Cavusoglu stated that the Syrian regime has the right to “cleanse its land of terrorists.” Interestingly, this rhetoric was absent from the English version of Anadolu Agency’s article, and present only in the Arabic version.
Prior to this development, many reports from various agencies discussed deepening intelligence ties between Ankara and Damascus.
Previous Turkish Operations Use Opposition Groups, Benefit Damascus
Three years ago, Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” against the SDF after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from many parts of northern Syria. The operation resulted in a Turkish takeover of the cities of Ras al-Ain (Sere Kaniye) and Tal Abyad (Gire Spi) on the Syrian-Turkish border, and ended with an agreement between Russia and Turkey which stipulated that the Syrian regime would deploy forces along the border from Derik in the northeast to Manbij in the northwest.
Many of these areas had not witnessed any regime presence for years, and had been firmly under the control of the SDF with the support of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The reaction from the Syrian regime was weak at best: Damascus sent a handful of infantry troops to the front lines after the Russian-Turkish agreement was made. Notably, the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA)—whose stated goal is the overthrow of Assad’s government—stopped their advance as soon as regime soldiers deployed along the front lines.
One year prior to this attack, Turkey and its Syrian proxies invaded the Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria’s northwest. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish-majority contingent of the SDF, resisted for two months before losing the area to Turkish forces. At the same time, the SNA held areas of the Damascus countryside, taking areas just kilometers from Assad’s presidential palace. Throughout the war in Syria, the SNA had promised to storm the palace and deal a final blow to the regime. Instead, they assisted Turkey in their invasion and occupation of Afrin.
This operation was a result of secret understandings between Russia, which withdrew its own troops from Afrin to allow the Turkish invasion, and Turkey, which handed the Ghouta area east of Damascus to the regime in exchange for a green light to invade Afrin. After this agreement, Turkey gained full control of Afrin and the SNA abandoned their territory in the Damascus countryside.
After these military operations, many SNA militants were recruited by Turkey to fight on their behalf in places as far away as Libya and Artsakh, rather than fighting the regime.
Implications of Recent Threats
As Turkey seeks US and Russian approval for a new operation with inconclusive results, the SDF is forced to accept the presence of more regime troops along the border to prevent another Turkish invasion and the loss of territory and forced demographic change that would come with it.
The US response to a potential attack on its SDF partners, who have their hands full fighting ISIS and guarding detention centers full of the terror group’s adherents, has been muted.
US officials and their counterparts in multiple European countries have warned that any Turkish invasion will provide fertile ground for the resurgence of ISIS. These warnings are backed up by reality: in the past three years, three ISIS leaders have been killed by strikes in areas under Turkish control. Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his successor Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi were killed in Idlib in 2019 and 2022 respectively, and their successor Maher al-Aqal was killed in Afrin in July this year. Last year in October, two strikes killed jihadist leaders who were hiding in the Peace Spring zone.
Despite these statements, there has been little Western action to deter Turkey. As a result, the SDF has now entered into negotiations with the regime, which has asked the SDF to withdraw completely from the areas Erdogan is threatening in order to save them. The SDF has refused this offer and currently prefers to resist any invasion, according to a knowledgeable Kurdish source on the ground. The source added that the SDF is forced to accept these negotiations as a result of Turkish threats, and would not otherwise agree to such conditions. Many in northern Syria fear persecution under government rule just as much as they fear persecution under Turkish occupation.
Russia is playing its cards carefully, repeatedly asking the SDF to deliver areas to the Syrian Arab Army or face a full-scale invasion. Heavy shelling in Tal Tamr and Tal Rifaat has continued up until the date of writing, with lighter bombardment ongoing in Ain Issa and Manbij.
Notably, the lighter bombardment targeting the latter two areas corresponds with a heavier deployment of regime troops there, while the number of regime reinforcements in Tel Tamr and Tel Rifaat have not changed. This belies a hidden message from Ankara to the SDF: if they do not withdraw or deliver these areas to the regime, the bombardments will continue.
What happens next?
“I say to Assad: The number of victims killed in Syria has approached 100,000; I swear to God, you will pay dearly.”
This 2013 tweet from Erdogan is a world away from Cavusoglu’s offer of support for the regime. As the crisis in Syria deepens, it is becoming clear that Erdogan’s emphatic condemnation of Assad’s crimes was only rhetoric. With his most recent declaration, the Turkish Foreign Minister has finally brought what had previously only gone on in the dark into the public eye.
Turkey is ready to cooperate with any actor in the Syrian conflict to destroy the AANES and SDF and prevent any settlement to the Syrian conflict that preserves Kurdish rights and autonomy. This has been obvious since the battle for Kobane, when Turkey allowed ISIS fighters to travel to Syria through its borders while refusing calls to take action against the jihadist group from opposition politicians and the international community alike.
In this context, it is unsurprising that Turkey is willing and able to work with Assad to destroy the AANES, even though Assad has lost international legitimacy and has been accused of war crimes. In the long term, Turkey is likely to abandon the SNA when sponsoring the group no longer serves Turkish interests.
So far, Damascus has not gone along with Ankara’s offer. Assad has kept it on the shelf, and is waiting to use Turkey against Syrian Kurds when the time is right. The Syrian government continues to demand that the SDF capitulate completely without receiving anything in exchange. The SDF will refuse such an offer, because it means a return to the pre-war status quo under which Syrian Kurds faced systemic oppression and discrimination.