Turkey’s Gains in Syria

by Robert Olson

On August 24, Turkey invaded Syria to retake the Islamic State (ISIS or IS)-held town of Jarabulus. Along with Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces comprised of anti-Assad, jihadist, and pro-Turkish Turkmen forces, Turkey has continued to drive further south.

On September 19, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkish forces had cleared IS from the town of Jarabulus and al-Rai and an additional 1,930 square miles. Turkey is now pushing toward al-Bab, a town crucial to defend the 55-mile stretch along the border, which would allow Turkish forces to approach Aleppo and prevent the Afrin canton from receiving reinforcements from the People’s Protective Units (YPG) in Manbij. Erdogan said that Turkey hoped to create a larger “free zone” manned by Turkish and FSA forces. Implicit in his statement was that Turkey would not allow YPG forces, and probably few Kurds, into the zone.

The free zone would not allow Russian, Syrian, or U.S. planes to overfly the area, a policy that U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and EU countries support. If the free zone were established, it is unclear how many Syrian refugees Turkey would encourage to relocate to the zone. A zone of 800 square miles could accommodate only a few hundred thousand of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey

The creation of a free zone would strengthen Turkish armed forces in the region east of the Euphrates and threaten the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) now there. The zone would make it impossible for Kurds to connect Afrin to Kobanê and Jazira cantons, the other two towns they control. Indeed, the creation of a Turkish-controlled free zone jeopardizes the 250-mile area that Kurds control along the Turkey-Syria border. At some point, Turkey will likely attempt to force the YPG to retreat some 9-20 miles south of the border it now controls. This would sever any contiguous territorial ties between the YPG and the PKK. Severing the ties between the YPG and PKK has been a primary goal of Turkish foreign policy since the creation of the YPG and PYD in 2003.

The state, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the armed forces have the national support they need to move against the YPG south of Kobanê and Jazira. Given the sensitivity of such a move, and the likelihood of further souring relations between the Kurds and Washington, Turkey will probably wait until after the U.S. presidential election.

A move by Turkish forces into the area south of the border and east of the Euphrates has strong support in the Turkish pro-AKP media and even in media still somewhat independent. Nuray Mert, a long-time critic of Erdogan, writes in the Hurriyet Daily News:

As for Turkey’s Syria policy, it is justifiable to be concerned with what happens long Turkey’s borders. It is true that Turkey’s leaders are more alarmed by the Kurdish advances in northern Syria that anything else, but Turkey cannot be expected to ignore the possibility of a Kurdish corridor along its border. Since such a major change of the status quo intimidates any sovereign nation, Turkey’s concerns should not be viewed as totally incomprehensible.

Journalist Murat Yetkin echoes Mert’s concerns. On September 19, he criticized the U.S. Central Command for its “demarbling” campaign of attempting to weaken FSA forces by persuading some Arab fighters to join other anti-regime forces—including jihadist groups but not IS or al-Nusra (now named Jabhat al-Fateh al-Sham)—and fight with other U.S.-backed forces. In effect, said Yetkin, the U.S.is now trying to undercut the forces equipped and trained by the CIA in Turkey and who comprise most of the forces that took over Jarabulus and al-Rai. In this way, the U.S. would be opposing FSA forces backed by Turkey even as the U.S.-led “Coalition against ISIL” uses Turkey’s Incirlik air base to bomb IS targets.

These developments, if true, demonstrate the different policies and geopolitical objectives pursued by Ankara and Washington. Washington’s main goal is to pursue its war on the Islamic State. Turkey is pressing its war against the PYD/YPG and the PKK/ Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) to consolidate its power its northern Syria.

In this battle, Turkey has the upper hand.

Photo: Turkish tanks enter Syria

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.



  1. I respectfully disagree with this analysis. The forces that took Jarablus faced no resistance. Battle hardy YPG will face off Turkey sooner or later. Turks will have to fight on two fronts: YPG and PKK. A fate they rightly deserve since they aided and abetted Daesh. And if Assad wins in Aleppo, he has to face off Turkey which will be an occupying power. He will find a willing partner in Kurds. It will be the pay back time for Erdogan. We will see, professor, who will have the last word!

  2. I support rightofreturn in his analysis. Turkey is living a short and artificial moment of unity after the failed coup. This will not last long as the Turkish army is weakened , the economy is suffering and cracks in the ‘unity’ are appearing. Turkey cannot control militarily for long a no-fly zone alone. The attacks on ISIS will inevitably trigger more retaliation inside Turkey. The YPG is regrouping and the USA is so furious to see Turkey allying with Russia that it will return its support the Kurds in Raqqa and else where.
    Turkey will also suffer from the revenge o the Gulen and Ataturk followers that are been harassed and abused. These people are smart and powerful, it is a matter of time for them to retaliate in ways that Erdogan cannot imagine.
    As all Turkish strategies since 2011, this one will fail too. Erdogan is a pathetic megalomaniac With him in power, the end of Turkey as a regional power has getting closer.

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