Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unfinished business in Syria

Pledged almost two months ago yet awaiting what analysts say is probably a green light from Moscow, the operation raises questions about Turkey’s ultimate plans for Syria.

Erdogan says he wants to initiate his fourth operation in the country’s north since 2016, targeting a zone which includes the two key towns of Manbij and Tel Rifaat. The goal, according to the President, is to rid the area of fighters allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that Turkey deems terrorist.

After a trilateral meeting between Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran yielded no evident developments last week, it seems that Turkey is still in talks with Moscow, hoping for Putin’s blessing to put more boots on the ground.

The Kremlin has thus far opposed the operation, saying it would not contribute to Syria’s stability and security.
Turkey's assault in Syria is a boon for Erdogan. Here's why

Another attempt is expected next month in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the Russian independent news agency Interfax reported Putin and Erdogan will be meeting.

“Erdogan has been saying he would like to [launch] another cross-border [operation] into Syria and it’s clear he wants to do this before the Turkish elections,” said Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“But, as in the past cross border incursions, Turkey really needs a green light from Putin to do this,” Aydintasbas told CNN.

Erdogan’s announcement in May came amid negotiations with the West over Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, two Nordic countries which Turkey accused of harboring individuals with links to the PKK.
While Turkey in June dropped its objections to membership for the Nordic states, it has recently renewed its threats, warning that it could veto their accession at any point if they do not comply with agreements ending support for the PKK and its affiliates.

The PKK today remains Turkey’s primary concern in Syria, and the main reason why it has continued to militarily cross into the Levantine state’s territory.

Designated as terrorists by Turkey, the US and the EU, the PKK have been embroiled in a long-running conflict with Turkey on each side of the border. In its decades of tension with the Kurdish fighters, Turkey has already launched three military operations against the PKK in Syria’s north, the latest of which was in 2019.

The aim has always been the same: to create a 30-kilometer deep, PKK-free “safe zone” in Syria that would allow more than two million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return home.

Turkey says that its grand plan for the safe zone is not yet complete, and it is concerned about a “terrorism corridor” left after their previous operations, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM.

The targeted towns of Manbij and Tel Rifaat are technically under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), analysts say.

The SDF is backed by Washington. But its backbone is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a wing of the PKK.

“Ankara sees no difference between the SDF and the PKK,” said Ulgen.

Washington has already warned Turkey against another incursion, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that “any escalation in northern Syria is something that we would oppose.”

Analysts say that Erdogan does take the US view into account, and that the Biden administration may take material action against Turkey in retaliation.

“US criticism matters — especially since it can spill over into other issues like congressional approval of F-16s,” said Aydintasbas.

Ankara in October requested to buy 40 Lockheed Martin Corp-made F-16 fighter jets from the US, as well as other military equipment. The deal is awaiting approval from the US Congress, which remains bitter over Turkey’s previous purchase of Russian missile systems — a move that triggered US sanctions.

The complex web of control in Ankara’s latest area of interest underscores the many agreements that will need to be settled between world powers before Turkey starts rolling more tanks on the ground.

Erdogan has in the past sought approval from Moscow to enter Syria. Russia essentially controls Syrian airspace and can make a Turkish incursion much more costly if it wants to, analysts say.

In Syria, Russia's big moment may have arrived

To a certain degree, an Iranian green light for a Turkish operation would also reduce risks for Erdogan. Yet Iran has thus far opposed the plan, saying it would be detrimental to both Turkey and Syria.

“They can raise the costs of such an operation,” said Rich Outzen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and a former US military officer and State Department official.

But the playing field differs today. Russia is heavily occupied with a bloody war in Ukraine and Turkey has emerged as a key mediator in the conflict.

With Turkish presidential elections due in a year, some argue that Erdogan is losing popularity as inflation skyrockets and the economy overheats.

“In electoral terms, there is gain to be had from nationalist and other constituencies who want to see refugees return to Syria, PKK damaged, and the perceived U.S. project in Syria undercut,” said Outzen.

Yet the political benefit might be minimal, notes Aydintasbas, as most Turks now are fixated on the country’s economic woes.

“It may boost Erdogan’s standing by a couple of points, but that will likely be temporary,” she said. “With high inflation, this is not going to seal in the elections for Erdogan.”

While analysts see the incursion as taking place either sooner or later, there is skepticism about the practicality of Erdogan’s aims in northeastern Syria.

“There is no clear-cut exit strategy,” said Ulgen, adding that he believes the incursion is imminent as, at this point in time, no party can guarantee Turkey’s demands for a PKK-free border zone.

“On the long run, that will need to be the Syrian government,” he said. “But we are not there yet.”

The digest

Iraqi protesters break into Baghdad’s Green Zone, denouncing the nomination of new premier

Hundreds of protesters loyal to populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr broke into the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on Wednesday, denouncing the nomination of Mohammed Shiya al-Sudani for the position of Prime Minister.

  • Background: Al-Sudani was formally nominated Monday by the Coordination Framework, the largest Shiite alliance in the Iraqi parliament, after nine months of political deadlock following an October parliamentary election, which has so far hampered the formation of a government. Iraqi security forces used teargas and watercannons to disperse the protesters in an attempt to push them out of the Green Zone’s perimeter. Sadr called on his supporters at the Parliament building inside the Green Zone to return to their homes. “Your message has been received. You have terrified the corrupt. Pray, and return home safely,” he tweeted.
  • Why it matters: Iraq is living its longest post-election deadlock, with Wednesday’s protests signaling possible further delays. While Sadr no longer has a parliamentary bloc after its resignation in June, his greatest influence lies in his ability to mobilize supporters on the streets. Analysts say that the kingmaker of Iraqi politics is capable of thwarting the nomination of al-Sudani as Prime Minister.

Joint Coordination Center opens in Istanbul to “provide safe transportation” of Ukrainian grain

The goal of the newly opened Joint Coordination Center is to “provide safe transportation” of Ukrainian grain, according to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. He also gave more information about how the center will function, adding that Russia, Ukraine, the United Nations and Turkey will each send five representatives, who will be a mix of civilian and military.

  • Background: The Joint Coordination Center, which will oversee the export of Ukrainian grain, was opened in Istanbul on Wednesday. That was after a deal inked Friday between Ukraine and Russia promised grain ships safe navigation through corridors in the Black Sea, and passage through the Bosphorus strait — an important shipping corridor in north-west Turkey — in order to reach global markets.
  • Why it matters: Russia has so far been blocking maritime access to important ports in Ukraine, meaning many Ukrainian exports, such as grain and fertilizers, could not be shipped to countries that rely on them. The coordination center is one of the key creations of the grain deal agreed with Russia and Ukraine under the auspices of the UN and Turkey, and in the words of Akar, will make significant contributions to overcoming the food crisis affecting the whole world, especially by lowering prices.

Macron hosts Saudi crown prince in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris, where an Elysée spokesperson told journalists that Macron will bring up the issue of human rights with the Saudi de facto ruler.

  • Background: The Saudi crown prince’s visit to Europe — including a stop in Greece — is the first since the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. A consortium of NGOs headed by DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now), a group founded by Khashoggi before his disappearance, filed a criminal complaint against bin Salman with a Paris court on Thursday morning. The Elysée spokesperson said the complaint “had been noted,” but would “have no direct impact on the meeting,” pointing to the personal immunity that heads of state benefit from during these visits.
  • Why it matters: The crown prince’s visit comes amid Western efforts to tighten relations with the oil-producing country amid shortages following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Macron has repeatedly called on oil producers to ramp up output to “exceptional” volumes.

What to watch

In a moment of national pride, Lebanon knocked out China for the first time ever and made its way to the finals of the FIBA Asia Cup, which takes place every four years. The win provides a glimmer of hope in otherwise desperate times for the Levantine country.

“We come from a broken country, so we just want to make our people happy,” Lebanon’s team captain Wael Arakji told CNN’s Becky Anderson.

Watch the full report here:

Around the region

We may soon be learning a lot more about the practices of ancient human settlements in the Gulf.

A group of Saudi and French archaeologists, in conjunction with the Saudi Heritage Commission, have discovered the remains of settlements dating back to the Stone Age in the Al-Faw Archaeological Area.

The findings included the remains of a stone temple and part of an altar, Neolithic human settlements and nearly 3,000 graves. Archaeologists also found the foundations of four larger monuments and rock engravings addressing deities of the ancient Al-Faw people.

The archaeological team used state-of-the-art technology, such as laser scanning and drones, according to the National.
The Al-Faw Archaeological Area in southern Riyadh is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and these inscriptions could shed new light on the religious practices of the nomadic and semi-nomadic people that occupied bustling ancient caravan cities. Those tribes traded myrrh and frankincense around Arabia, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, according to UNESCO.
Preserved for hundreds of years by the harsh desert climate, there are a number of prominent ancient UNESCO sites in Saudi Arabia. For example, rock art in the Ha’il region depicts human life 10,000 years ago, while the Hegra Archaeological Site is home to well-preserved tombs dating back to the first century BC.
Discoveries happen regularly and just in January, archaeologists discovered a 4,500-year-old highway network in Saudi Arabia lined with well-preserved ancient tombs.

By Eoin McSweeney

Time capsule

Children at the Zaatari refugee camp, on November 19, 2021.

Today marks ten years since the Zaatari Refugee Camp first opened.

Sitting by Jordan’s northern border with Syria, the Zaatari Refugee came to life in 2012. Its goal was to host Syrians fleeing conflict in their country.

Over the years the camp turned into a semblance of a functioning city, with caravan houses, electricity, jobs, and even schools.

Today it hosts almost 80,000 refugees, mostly Syrians, according to the UNHCR.

While Zaatari has changed a lot over the years, residents say it is still far from being a home.

One resident, Rana Muhammad Al-Barghash arrived in the camp when she was barely one year old. Now 11, the camp is all she knows.

Rana told CNN that she dreams of becoming a doctor one day. Her mother, Amal, said that one of the hardest things about living in the camp is watching her kids grow up with “no guarantee of a future.”

By Elizabeth Wells and Mohammed Abdelbary