Need a brief overview of the start of Operation Euphrates Shield? Check out the August 24 launch of combat operations here in Turkey Invades Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield
The occupation of Syria’s northern city of Al-Bab was a difficult operation for Turkey and its proxy militias. The effort to capture Al-Bab required more Turkish military forces and a longer timetable than the AKP-dominated government of President Erdogan originally anticipated. ISIS, as has been true in Iraq’s Mosul, proved a fiercer defender than expected. The delay to capture the city made it difficult for Turkey to advance further into Syria and achieve a greater political influence on the conflict’s approaching endgame.
Ultimately, Turkey was hemmed in by an advancing Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The Syrians managed to circumvent any pathway further south into their territory, proving capable of protecting their sovereignty and bolstering Bashar al Assad’s claims that the whole of Syria will one day be united again. With Turkey and its FSA allies frozen, the Syrian army has managed to sweep across large swaths of ISIS territory in East Syria. They are now finalizing an assault on Deir Hafer, a key city in the Aleppo Governorate. A victory there will free up new SAA forces for an eventual assault on Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria.
Turkey openly considered a new path forward when events on the ground turned against them. To take the ISIS capital of Raqqa, they considered moving east against the Kurds. The consequence of such a military action would have been unpredictable.
If successful, the Turks would have managed to split the eastern canton of Syrian Kurdish territory. If other powers objected, many certainly would have, a military operation into YPG territory would have led to a direct conflict with not only the YPG, but the Syrian government, and possibly Russia and Iran, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the U.S itself, a NATO ally of Turkey. Which is to say, every major actor in Syria would have been opposed or skeptical of such a police action and questioned its intent.
The Kurdish peshmerga forces quickly began negotiations with the Syrian government when Turkey began expressing an interest in an assault on Manbij. Turkey believes the YPG an ally of the Turkish PKK, a Kurdish organization labeled a terrorist group by Turkey. They are fiercely opposed to an independent Kurdistan in Syria. The Kurds, as a result of Turkish considerations, welcomed Syrian military assets into YPG held territory to stem the threat. Turkey was furious that they were unable to launch operations on Manbij after the YPG-Syrian accommodation had been put into action.
Is There Room for a Syrian-Kurdish Accommodation? A negotiated accommodation between Damascus and Rojava has the potential to reconfigure relations on the ground in Syria. The Syrian government and Kurdish forces both stand to gain from negotiating an end to hostilities between their two military forces, and forging a separate peace against Turkish-backed rebels and ISIS.
Turkey is now hemmed into a small space in northern Syria, with no path south or east into the country. Turkey, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad in the early years of the Syrian Civil War, has been unable to force a political settlement that would see his departure from the presidential palace in Damascus. Additionally, President Erdogan has been unable to advance a Turkish agenda deep into the Syrian conflict, despite lending enormous political capital, spending lavishly in aid, and sending weapons to the Syrian rebellion. Istanbul has also hosted some elements of the Syrian opposition (the Syrian National Council), but those actors have been unable to gain leadership over armed groups operating on the ground in Syria.
The escalation to Operation Euphrates Shield, which sent Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) into harms way against ISIS, and at times has targeted Syrian Kurds, seems to have had no major influence on the conflict, yet has come with a high price for Turkey’s morale and confidence in shaping regional affairs. The Turkish forces have military casualties in the dozens since the August 24 launch of combat operations, with limited success. Overall, the operation was another foreign policy failure for Turkey.