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Persistent Crisis

An analysis of the impact of Turkish attacks on Syria on future normalization efforts between the two nations

13 February 2024

In a televised address after a Cabinet meeting on January 16, 2024, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed his country's commitment to eliminating what he referred to as "terrorist hideouts" in Syria. These areas extend from Tel Rifaat to Ain al-Arab, and from Hasakah to Manbij. Erdogan stressed, “Our military presence beyond our borders is critical to the national security of our country and for the peace of our citizens. There’s no turning back from this.”

Escalation Trеnds

The recent escalation of Turkey's cross-border operations within Syrian territory can be summarized as follows:

1. Bombardmеnt of PKK strongholds:

Turkish attacks on sites associated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Syria and Iraq have been on the rise since late December 2023, following a PKK attack on a Turkish military site in northern Iraq that led to the deaths of 21 Turkish soldiers. In response, the Turkish Ministry of Defense initiated an aerial bombing campaign on PKK sites in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria to retaliate for the soldiers' casualties. In his address, Erdogan stated that an additional 60 PKK infrastructures and facilities have been destroyed by Turkish forces since January 12, 202. Furthermore, it has been reported that PKK members were killed as a result of Turkish airstrikes during this period.

2. Continuеd attacks on the SDF:

As Turkey intensified its attacks on regions under the control of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it launched three precise operations targeting leaders of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) — the principal component of the SDF. Erdogan also stated that Turkish aircraft had struck a total of 114 targets in Syria and Iraq, neutralizing 78 individuals in operations initiated in early January 2024.

On the other hand, Turkish strikes have primarily focused on targeting Kurdish institutions and facilities. The initial strikes, ordered by Ankara in Northern Syria on December 25, 2023, specifically targeted key infrastructure sites. These included the power station in the Maysaloun neighborhood, the local train station, and a fuel storage site owned by the Syrian Petroleum Storage and Distribution Company (Sadcob). Additionally, service and economic sites such as the al-Oudah and al-Saeeda oil fields near Qamishli, along with other oil fields operated by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), were hit. This resulted in the shutdown of critical oil and energy stations across northeastern Syria. In response to these actions, the Kurdish-led AANES announced on January 15, 2024, that renewed Turkish shelling on power stations in northeastern Syria caused power outages affecting hundreds of villages and towns.

Multiplе Incеntivеs

Several incеntivеs may bе driving Ankara's еscalation of its opеrations in Syria in thе coming pеriod, including:

1. Washington's lax rеsponsе to Turkish attacks:

Washington's subdued response to Turkey's shelling of Kurdish militant sites could potentially encourage Turkey to intensify its military actions in Syria. This concern was heightened after a U.S. F-16 aircraft intercepted a Turkish drone that ventured within half a kilometer of a U.S. base in October 2023. Following this incident, Turkish drones launched several attacks in close proximity, merely one kilometer away from a U.S. base in northeastern Syria, compelling U.S. forces to seek shelter. This escalation prompted Republican Senator Rand Paul to advocate for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, especially after repeated aggressions towards U.S. and coalition forces in the Euphrates River region. Such developments may further embolden Turkish forces to persist in their bombardment of Kurdish sites, with little apprehension of American retaliation.

2. Turkish-Iranian compеtition in Syria: 

Competition between Tehran and Ankara for influence in Syria could prompt Turkey to escalate its military operations. Over 2023, military and strategic relations between Damascus and Tehran strengthened considerably, turning Syria into a battleground between American and Iranian interests. This development suggests that Ankara might not yield the Syrian stage to its historical rival, Iran, potentially leading Ankara to ramp up its operations to sustain its influence in the neighboring country.

3. Washington's manеuvеrs with the SDF:

In early July 2023, U.S. forces announced the initiation of joint military maneuvers with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which included air exercises across the Syrian governorates of Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. The frequency of these joint exercises has seen an uptick recently, primarily due to the ongoing war in Gaza. On December 9, 2023, the U.S. forces executed the Blue Arrow joint military exercises alongside the international coalition and the SDF at a U.S. base in Hasakah. This move sparked outrage in Ankara, which labeled the exercises as "Washington's engagements with terrorist organizations" and demanded that Washington cease its military support for the SDF. These maneuvers might serve as a pretext for Ankara to intensify its operations in Syria, especially following its declaration to persist in its actions against the SDF after the latest exercises.

4. Stalеmatе in normalization efforts:

The stalemate in the normalization process between Ankara and Damascus may be a contributing factor to Turkey's escalation of operations in Syria. The normalization discussions reached an impasse after the last meetings involving the four parties at the deputy foreign ministers' level, which took place on the sidelines of the 20th round of the Astana Process talks in Kazakhstan on June 20-21, 2023. The primary reason for this deadlock is both parties' adherence to their respective conditions and their reluctance to offer any concessions that could potentially resolve the issue.

Possiblе Scеnarios

The future of Turkish-Syrian normalization in 2024 remains uncertain. However, the process might progress based on potential scenarios, including:

1. The first scеnario- Pushing normalization forward:

This scenario indicates that discussions between Ankara and Damascus are likely to progress towards normalization, particularly after Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan announced the continuation of quadrilateral talks at various levels on January 3, 2024. The rationale behind this perspective is grounded in several factors, chiefly the notion that crises can catalyze the re-initiation of dialogue between Turkey and Syria. The ongoing war in Gaza may serve as a common ground for Ankara and Damascus, while the Syrian issue holds significant relevance to Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. Given his critical role in fostering dialogue between Ankara and Damascus during his tenure as the head of Turkish intelligence, Fidan may be motivated to rejuvenate these discussions towards normalization.

On the other hand, Ankara, represented by the Turkish Defense Minister and as a part of the efforts to restore relations between the two nations, presented an offer to the Assad regime. The proposal involved a complete withdrawal from Syria, contingent upon reaching an agreement between the Syrian opposition and the regime. Following this, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad discussed reforms within the Ba'ath Party in Syria and highlighted the significance of elections as the optimal method for selecting new party leaders. Experts have associated these remarks with attempts by the Syrian government to engage more openly with the international community, including efforts towards normalization between Ankara and Damascus.

2. Thе sеcond scеnario- Persistent dеadlock:

This scenario, which appears to be the most likely, predicts that the relationship between Ankara and Damascus will remain in a stalemate within the normalization process. This is especially true considering that the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey fell by 10 percent in 2023, as reported by the Turkish Directorate of Immigration. This decrease brought the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to its lowest in seven years. Such a development could provide Erdogan with a means to deflect criticism from the opposition, which advocates for the repatriation of Syrians to their homeland. However, repatriation requires normalization with Damascus, making the situation complex. This scenario is supported by several indicators, notably Syria's re-admission into the Arab League, which has led the Assad regime to perceive normalization with Turkey as less urgent. Moreover, Turkish demands continue to be a barrier to Syrian-Turkish normalization. On the other hand, Syria's condition for complete withdrawal of Turkish forces from its territory remains a red line for Turkey. Should this scenario unfold, Turkish military actions against the Kurds are expected to persist, albeit without escalating into full-scale operations.

3. Thе third scеnario- Comprеhеnsivе military opеration:

According to this scenario, tensions between Turkey and Syria are expected to escalate, with Ankara initiating a comprehensive military operation in Syria against the Kurds, bypassing coordination with the Syrian government. Some experts believe that Turkey will adopt a more determined and aggressive military stance against Kurdish separatists in Syria and Iraq come 2024. Although a potential ground operation encompassing all areas in northern Syria could risk escalating tensions with Washington, the United States' diminished capacity to restrain Turkish actions, combined with the potential for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria if Donald Trump is re-elected in the 2024 U.S. presidential elections, might significantly bolster Ankara's position in Syria and prompt it to launch a comprehensive military operation to secure areas of concern.

In summary, given the current situation between Ankara and Damascus, predicting the future of normalization efforts between Ankara and the Assad regime in 2024 is challenging due to the uncertainty surrounding the resumption of talks and the potential for Turkey to launch a comprehensive operation into Syria, as part of an intensified Turkish escalation in northeast Syria targeting terrorist and Kurdish sites. Consequently, the coming days are likely to witness significant actions by Washington, Moscow, and Tehran, potentially exacerbating the situation in Syria due to the overlapping interests of these states in maintaining their military presence in the country.