Turkey has launched its most significant cross-border military operation since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. The Army began shelling Islamic State (IS) positions in Jarabulus, less than 2 km inside northern Syria, on 22 August. Troops and tanks were then deployed across the border today (24 August) and Ankara carried out air strikes on Jarabulus, with latest reports suggesting that IS has now withdrawn from the city. The military had previously suspended action against IS in Syria after last month’s failed coup, but renewed its targeting of the group after 54 people died in an IS suicide bombing in a Kurdish district of Gaziantep in the South-East on 20 August.
Prime Minister Yildirim has said that Turkey will take a more active role in Syria over the next six months and Ankara has presented the operation as an anti-IS initiative. The loss of Jarabulus will severely restrict its access to the Turkish border but the military has also hit the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the city and in Manbij, which the SDF captured from IS on 12 August. The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and this points to a more assertive approach to the presence of Kurdish militias along its border. The intervention would not have been possible without the tacit approval of Russia and Iran and the Government sought to improve ties with Moscow and Tehran immediately beforehand, with Yildirim conceding that Assad could play a role in a future political transition. This constituted a significant softening of Ankara’s position on the issue and the Government hopes this engagement might lead to coordinated efforts against Kurdish rebels (see today’s Syria Report).
This highlights that Ankara’s key objective in Syria is to reduce the amount of territory in the North controlled by Kurdish militias, something Turkey considers to be in its vital interests. The operation against Jarabulus is therefore aimed at weakening IS’s position there so that Turkish-backed rebels might then seize the city. This is intended to frustrate the YPG’s efforts to capture it, which are being supported by the US through the SDF. The Government’s more assertive approach in Syria will anger Turkey’s Kurdish population, thereby further fuelling the violence in the South-East and Kurdish militants will also step up efforts to strike in Istanbul and Ankara. Attacks will predominately target Government and security interests, though hardline militants could also seek to strike civilian areas. Such violence would pose a collateral threat to business interests and travellers in the two cities.
IS has long sought to aggravate tensions between the Government and the Kurds and we believe this was the principal objective of the Gaziantep attack. However, it will also fear that Turkey’s more assertive approach in northern Syria will jeopardise its position there, and so the bombing was a warning not to play a more active role in the civil war. IS will now want to respond to Turkey’s increased military efforts in northern Syria, and so we believe that jihadists will seek to conduct a major attack against foreign and economic targets in key cities every few months. Although Ankara could be drawn more deeply into the civil war in time, it will remain focused on border areas for now and is unlikely to expand its military efforts to other key cities under IS’s control, such as Raqqa. IS is therefore unlikely to launch a major campaign of violence in the country at present, though the tempo of attacks may increase somewhat if Turkish-backed rebels enter Jarabulus.