Rumors of a Turkish Invasion of Northern Syria
There is heightened speculation in Turkey about a long-debated military intervention in northern Syria, where Kurdish forces are battling militants from ISIS.
Both pro- and anti-government newspapers are reporting that Turkey is mulling sending up to 18,000 ground troops into Syria. The two countries share a 500km border, where fighting has come within a stone's throw.
Late Monday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey would consider 'all necessary measures' to secure its borders. But the Government is yet to comment publicly on reports that ground troops would be sent in. Sources close to the Government say the idea is being seriously considered at a national security conference held on Monday and Tuesday this week, and that an announcement is expected in coming days.
Any intervention on the part of the Turks would likely be aimed at frustrating efforts by the Kurds to establish their own statelet in Syria. Turkey and Kurdish forces from the PKK have been locked in a decades-long conflict, and Kurds in Syria hope to establish an autonomous zone in the north-eastern part of the country, potentially galvanising separatist sentiments among their counterparts in Turkey.
In a fiery address on Friday, Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Syrian Kurds of ethnic cleansing and said: 'We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria.'
Turkey has long pushed for the creation of a 'buffer zone' along its southern border with Syria, but has failed to secure international approval, partly due to its stance against the Kurds who, with the help of US air cover, have proven the only force capable of pushing back the advance of ISIS. The Kurds engaged in intense fighting against ISIS to secure the border city of Kobani, and have advanced east towards Tel Abyad, potentially giving them a 300km stronghold on Turkey's doorstep.
But such a bold and unilateral move by Turkey could complicate an already crowded battlefield. While a large scale-state intervention could serve as a much needed 'strong hand' in Syria, Turkey risks direct confrontation with the Kurds as well as the Assad-led Syrian military. It could even face retributive attacks by ISIS itself.
There are political risks at play as well.
The ruling AK Party sought to renew its parliamentary majority earlier this month in Turkey's general elections, but instead the Party suffered damaging losses, losing its majority and resulting in a hung parliament. The biggest winner in the election was the pro-Kurdish left-wing Peoples' Democracy Party, which secured about 80 seats in the 550-seat chamber. The Government will have to negotiate a coalition, probably with extreme nationalists, or call a fresh election.
It's highly unlikely that a large-scale military invasion of Syria could be made by an outgoing government. Sources close to the Government say talk of intervention is genuine, but one has to wonder whether the leak was aimed at denting the AK Party's standing as it courts potential partners to form a coalition. An invasion of Syria aimed at the Kurds would almost certainly end Turkey's peace process with the Kurds, a key achievement of Erdogan's leadership and a campaign platform.