Why would Turkey invade Syria?

You were probably just thinking to yourself that the civil war in Syria isn’t complicated enough, that there aren’t enough warring parties, and that the constantly shifting sides have become predictable and tired. Well, don’t despair, there are now rumors emerging out of Turkey that may introduce enough new dimensions to the conflict to keep you confused well into the next decade.

The Turkish press is reporting that the Turkish government may be about to invade Syria along a 70-mile stretch of Turkey’s border with Syria to create a 20-mile deep safe zone. This issue is currently the subject of heated speculation and controversy in Ankara, making it quite difficult to figure out what is really happening.

But beyond the fevered speculation, why would Turkey want to invade Syria anyway?

Syria has long been a threatening mess, but neither Turkey nor anyone else has exactly been lining up to send their national armies into Syria. Sure, foreign fighters are plentiful in Syria and all of the regional powers, as well as the United States and Russia, have supported proxies there. But even after more than four years of bloody, destabilizing warfare, national armies have avoided it like the plague. The reason is quite simple: The complicated Syrian civil war has quagmire written all over it. As hard as it is to send a foreign army into Syria, it would be harder still to get it out.

In Turkey, particularly, the idea of military intervention into Syria remains very unpopular among the populace. The possibility that intervention might backfire and unleash Islamic State (or ISIS) terrorism within Turkey, or even reignite the bloody Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s southeast, remains an ever-present fear.

Now, however, the theory goes that Syrian Kurdish advances against ISIS have caused such concern in Turkey that the Kurds will create some sort of state or autonomous region along Turkey’s southern border. To prevent that outcome, the Turkish government, we are told, is finally willing to intervene in Syria.

Well, maybe. But, in our view, the reason that Turkey might now finally be contemplating such a step says more about changes in the domestic and international standing of the Turkish government than about the course of events in Syria.

Domestically, the outcome of the Turkish election of June 7 has seriously scrambled Turkish politics. After nearly 13 years in power, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its absolute majority in parliament. The AKP, which still holds a plurality of seats in parliament, has 45 days to form a government with at least one of the minority parties. But it seems clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has very little interest in coalition government. The leaders of the two main opposition parties, the nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the center-left Republican Peoples Party (CHP), have both demanded the re-opening of corruption cases against the AKP. Erdoğan may fear that those corruption cases may eventually touch even his family.

Erdoğan would undoubtedly prefer an early election to subjecting his party or even his family to the indignities of prying prosecutors. But to achieve a better outcome than the AKP managed in June, he needs to demonstrate to the population the pitfalls of weak, coalition governments. As the possibility of intervention in Syria increases, as the markets spooks on the prospects of war, and even if a few bombs were to go off in the Kurdish areas, the growing sense of national insecurity would only serve to make Erdoğan’s case that the country needs the firm hand of one-party leadership. With a big enough victory, it might even serve to bring back prospects of constitutional change to increase the powers of the presidency. At that point, an early election would be worth having.

Insecurity works

Internationally, Turkey may be driven by the sense the White House now prefers their Kurdish partners in Syria to Turkey. The Turkish government is extremely angry about the emerging alliance between the United States and the Syrian Kurds, especially the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They attribute Kurdish success against ISIS to the American willingness to support Syrian Kurdish forces with air power and supplies. In the Turkish view, the PYD is simply a branch of the PKK, which both Turkey and the United States have branded a terrorist group. Allowing the PYD to unite the Kurdish areas of Syria would therefore represent an existential threat to Turkey.  

By threatening to intervene in Syria, the Turkish government seeks to change a U.S. policy that it finds potentially very damaging to Turkish interests. As Erdoğan no doubt reminded Vice President Biden when they talked the other day, Turkey has the ability to have a far greater impact on the fight against ISIS than the Kurds do. (The Turkish government might tell their domestic audiences that a prospective intervention in Syria is to stop the Kurds, but they will tell international audiences that it is to fight ISIS.)

Interestingly, to achieve both these international and domestic advantages, it is not necessary or even wise to actually go through with the intervention. Domestically, all that is necessary is to convince the population that the situation is sufficiently insecure to require firm, one-party leadership. Internationally, it just requires using the prospect of intervention to gain U.S. attention and convince the U.S. government to reduce its support of the PYD. At the current moment, the prospect of intervention is very useful for the Turkish government. Actual intervention, with all of the attendant risks of quagmire, is significantly less appealing.

So that means that it is probably not strictly necessary to spend your time trying to understand how the myriad factions within Syria will respond to the presence of the Turkish military on Syrian soil. On the bright side, you now have some really good reasons to enter into the nearly as confusing realm of Turkish domestic politics. Maybe start with our Turkish election series.

For another take on this issue, see the post from Kemal Kirisci and Sinan Ekim