Turkey Warns of Military Action in Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Policy Briefs Program

June 2022

10 Cents

Turkey Warns of Military Action in Syria


Q: What are the recent developments between Turkey and Syria?

A: In a meeting on May 24th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated multiple times that Turkey is planning a new military operation to target Kurdish fighters in Syria. This would be the fourth major Turkish operation in Syria since 2016. 


Q: How is the United States reacting to this?

A: These statements are in conjunction with reports that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will turn towards the Syrian government for military support should Turkey take military action against them. U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price has called on Turkey “to live up to the October 2019 joint statement, including to halt offensive operations in northeastern Syria.” Price stated that he recognizes Turkey’s security concerns on its border, but the United States, and other nations, are concerned that any further offensive would undermine regional stability as well as put at risk many hard-won gains against IS.


Q: How did this conflict in Syria begin?

A: This conflict is part of the broader Syrian civil war that started in 2011. Following the Arab Spring, many Syrians favored democratic reforms and peacefully protested against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a dictator that allowed the citizens few civil liberties. In turn, the Assad regime cracked down on these protestors with force, causing a civil conflict between the Syrian government and the broad opposition forces. 


Q: Who is the war between?

A: While the civil war is primarily between the Syrian establishment government and the opposition, multiple groups and countries are involved. Accordingly, this conflict is a “proxy war,” as many foreign countries give military, economic, and diplomatic support to the various factions. 


Q: What groups are involved, and who are the allies?

A: There are two broad groups of allies. The countries and groups aligned with the Assad regime are the Syrian Armed Forces, Iran, Russia, and the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah. The factions that comprise the broad opposition are the Syrian National Army, the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States, Turkey, and Israel. However, these groups are not clear-cut. 

While the U.S. and Turkey are on the same side of the Syrian conflict, relations are often complicated because the U.S.-backed SDF includes the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which Turkey views as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is a Kurdish political and militant group that both Turkey and the U.S. deem a terrorist organization. 


Q: Why is the United States involved in the conflict?

A: Firstly, the United States has intervened in Syria since 2013 to combat the Islamic State (IS) in partnership with the SDF. By 2017, there were roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria having regained most of the IS territory; by 2019, the last IS territorial stronghold was recaptured. 

The second major catalyst for U.S. involvement was the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. In 2012, the Obama administration declared that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line,” an unacceptable condition prompting a response, for the United States. In 2013, the Syrian government deployed the nerve agent sarin on its people, killing an estimated 1,400 citizens. 


Q: Why is the war so complex?

A: There are four overlapping conflicts at play in the war, making different groups with varying objectives come into play. First, there is the conflict between Assad’s regime and the rebels. The second conflict is between Turkey and the Kurds. Third, there is a conflict between Israel and the Iran-backed forces such as Hezbollah. Lastly, there is the conflict between the U.S. and their allies against the Islamic State in this region.


Q: What’s at stake for Turkey?

A: Stated previously, Turkey’s primary objective in this conflict is to deter the Kurds from achieving their own state, a development that could threaten Turkish sovereignty, power, and influence. The Kurds are a large ethnic minority in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and part of Syria and the largest ethnic group without their own state globally; as such, they have been looking to establish an independent Kurdistan. 

Kurdish groups in Syria such as the YPG, part of the SDF, are supported by the U.S. in their mission to combat IS, yet this puts Turkey and the U.S. at odds despite being on the same side. These recent developments have increased strains on U.S. and Turkish relations. 


Q: Why is Erdogan pursuing military operations in Syria?

A: The past three operations launched by Turkey include: Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, Operation Olive Branch in 2018, and Operation Peace Spring in 2019. 

  • Turkey’s first operation, in conjunction with Syrian opposition forces, prevented the YPG from establishing control along the Turkey and Syria border. 
  • The second was launched in northwest Syria, targeting Kurdish forces and derailing SDF-led counter-IS efforts in Syria.
  • The third expelled U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in north-central Syria, which Turkey saw as a “safe zone.” 

This planned fourth operation would create a “buffer zone” on the Turkish border, with Erdogan targeting the SDF in Northern Syria. This zone would serve to protect Turkey from fighting along the Turkish-Syria border. 


Q: How would a Turkish attack impact Syrian and regional dynamics?

A: Currently, the SDF has announced that it will seek support from the Assad regime should Turkey go through with this fourth operation against them. While the SDF is part of the broad opposition to the Assad regime, they have grown closer to the Syrian government in Damascus as a result of Turkish military forces in Syria. 

Russian and Syrian forces are increasing their presence in northern Syria ahead of this potential Turkish operation. While Russia and Turkey have close ties, their support for opposing sides in this conflict has strained relations at times. As Turkey provides mediation amid the Russia-Ukraine war, these recent developments in Syria may continue the trend of complicating relations. 

The U.S. has voiced its opposition to this operation, stating that it would jeopardize stability in the region and risk casualties, including U.S. troops. Russia as well stated that they hope Turkey does not do anything that would deteriorate the situation in Syria. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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