Chris Townsend is an active duty U.S. Army officer with 20 years of service. He is a Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer. He can be found on Twitter @FAO_Chris and has written for the Journal of Defense Resources Management, Small Wars Journal, Armchair General, and the Strategy Bridge. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Turkey’s options regarding the civil war, humanitarian, and international crisis in Syria.
Date Originally Written: November 23, 2016.
Date Originally Published: December 12, 2016.
Author and / or Article Point of View: Author is an active duty military officer currently focused on Multinational Logistics for a Geographic Combatant Command. This article explores Turkey’s options in the Syrian Conflict. The author’s opinions of Turkey’s options in Syria have been informed by his experiences as a Foreign Area Officer and benefitted from articles published by World Politics Review, Politico, The Middle East Institute, The Atlantic Council, and Stratfor.
Background: Following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, protests in Syria resulted in a security crackdown that devolved into outright civil war between Alawi leaders and loyalists and the largely Sunni resistance. Refugee flows from conflict areas have created problems for all neighboring countries. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been actively involved in the resistance, while Lebanese Hezbollah has supported the Syrian ruling regime. Russia has intervened on behalf of the Syrian government, while the United States has provided training and equipment to resistance fighters. Kurdish militias in Northern Syria have largely supported opposition forces. The complex and dynamic array of forces presents significant challenges politically and militarily for Turkey.
Significance: The ongoing sectarian struggle in Syria presents significant security challenges for Turkey. The presence of international and indigenous military forces in Syria as well as heavy refugee flows fleeing the fighting all represent a threat to the security and stability of the Turkish state.
Option #1: Containment. Turkey can close its border and protect its airspace until the situation in Syria is resolved.
Risk: Refugee flows will create problems at the border and a potential humanitarian crisis that would draw condemnation from the global community. Kurdish militias will be able to link up and may represent a perceived threat to Turkish security.
Gain: Refugees are kept out of Turkey. Turkish military involvement is limited to border security and airspace defense. Turkey provides a neutral space for negotiations between belligerents and reaps potential diplomatic gains.
Option #2: Syrian Buffer Zone. Turkey pushes ground and air forces south to secure Northern Syria from Azaz in the West to Jarabulus in the East.
Risk: Turkish troops exposed to increased conflict from Syrian Forces. Potential clashes with Kurdish and Russian military elements could escalate conflict. Actions could be seen as the invasion of a sovereign nation and will likely be met with condemnation and potential sanctions. No-fly zone activities to support the buffer zone may be challenged by Russia or Syria with ramifications for interdiction. Turkish resources are insufficient to sustain such an effort and would require external support for extended operations.
Gain: Provides a safe space for refugees without allowing them into Turkey. Prevents Kurdish elements in the East and West from linking up. Provides a learning opportunity to Turkish Forces by deploying troops and equipment into combat with a minimal logistics tail.
Option #3: Support to Syrian proxy Jaysh Halab (Army of Aleppo). Turkey provides training and equipment with support from Saudi Arabia to its proxy in Syria to maintain a Turkish footprint without Turkish presence and prevent Kurdish elements from combining into a larger force on Turkey’s southern border.
Risk: Exposure to culpability for actions of the proxy force if war crimes are committed against Syrian or Kurdish soldiers or civilians. Lack of vetting capability exposes the proxy to infiltration by other elements. Little clarity of intent as forces are engaging both Kurdish and Syrian forces.
Gain: Proxy inhibits Kurdish momentum towards unification of forces. Increased relations with Saudi Arabia help to further offset Iranian influence in the region. Turkey poised to establish proxy as peacekeeping force if hostilities cease, maintaining influence in Syria and positive control of border interests.
Other Comments: Turkey seems to be currently pursuing all three options simultaneously. A border wall is under construction. Turkish forces are operating in Syria. Jaysh Halab is receiving support but its early activities seem to be anti-Kurd instead of anti-Syrian Government. The Turkish presence in Northern Iraq serves as a hedge that will largely funnel retreating Islamic State forces west into Raqqah, Syria. The Turkish or proxy forces to the North of Raqqah provide pressure and limit options for the Islamic State as threats emerge from the East and South. Turkey represents a potential spoiler for U.S. efforts to clear Raqqah as their involvement creates political hazards by limiting U.S. options and increasing the risk of rejection by Kurdish partners.