Why do Americans suddenly care about Turkey's presence in Syria?

Xander Snyder

I’m back from a brief hiatus from writing. More details here. Turns out I picked a bad week to disconnect, since between then and now, Turkey has invaded Syria, and I covered both of these topics extensively while at Geopolitical Futures. The difference is this time around everyone’s talking about it.

There are too many angles to cover in one article, so I’m going to touch on one aspect of Turkey’s invasion now, then follow up with a short series of articles that will focus on others.

Talk of the town
A conversation I had on my vacation is a good example of how widely discussed Turkey’s incursion into Syria has become. I visited my family in a fairly rural part of North Carolina. It’s beautiful, and isolated. A cousin of mine, an intelligent man who stays abreast of world events, but who also has a family and is an entrepreneur with limited time to dive deep on these issues, asked me: “What do you make of this stuff with the Kurds?”

What a challenging question. I had no idea where to start. How do you summarize the chaos of Syria and the plight of the Syrian Kurds in a couple of sentences over a beer? You can’t. What I focused on instead was my surprise that this topic has become mainstream, even though the question of Syrian Kurdish semi-autonomy in northern Syria has been around for years. What is it about this particular invasion that’s grabbing popular attention that didn’t before?

Nothing new

This is not the first time Turkey has invaded Syria – it’s the third time in three years (Operation Olive Branch, in January 2018, and Operation Euphrates Shield, in October 2016). It’s not even the first time the US effectively green lit a Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria. Last January the US gave Turkey a free hand to move into Afrin, a northwestern province in Syria, when senior US military officials made public statements clarifying that US support of Syrian Kurdish forces was limited to areas east of the Euphrates river. That is - the US has nothing to do with the Syrian Kurds in Afrin, so go right ahead, Turkey. Then, too, many worried that Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, comprised primarily of Syrian Kurds, were being diverted away from the fight against the Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria and into Afrin to defend against the Turkish offensive in northwestern Syria.

Route of Turkey’s January 2018 invasion (“Olive Branch”) into Afrin, in Northwest Syria

Source:    Al-Masdar news

Turkey’s territorial possessions in Syria following Operation Olive Branch 

Turkey’s most recent invasion and the safe zone agreed upon between it and the US

Source:  Thesun.co.uk

Source: Thesun.co.uk

Why, then, is this particular invasion being discussed as if it is something novel? I can think of three possible explanations, some of which are grounded in geopolitical logic, others in domestic political considerations. Some are, to varying degrees, more believable than others.

First: the invasion might be novel in terms of scale.
The sheer size of this invasion (including Turkish-backed proxies in Syria) may be bigger than prior ones. Reports seem to indicate that the size of Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) (excluding proxies) involved in the invasion is larger than during previous operations. Some figures of Turkish forces involved in this offensive number 10,000, plus additional support from its Syrian-based proxy groups (I have not yet seen estimates of the size of Turkish-backed militias involved in this operation).

10,000 is a large force, to be sure, but not substantially larger than what the TAF used in its January 2018 invasion of Afrin, which is estimated to have involved 6,000-6,500 Turkish Armed Forces, with proxy forces somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000-25,000.

Earlier this year I tracked the buildup of Turkish forces along the Syrian border over several months, and came to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000-25,000 TAF troops, accompanied by armored vehicles, artillery, and other heavy equipment. That figure is very rough, and was calculated by digging through several individual sources and making educated guesses. Still, if that figure is roughly correct, it would imply that Turkey has either held back 5,000-15,000 soldiers in reserve, to be deployed in the event of a weak spot along its offensive line, or to be stationed along the border longer term as a defensive shield against any possible counterattacks from Syrian Kurdish forces (which I think is unlikely, given the SDF’s relative lack of heavy weapons).

Either way, Turkey’s own advancing army, excluding militias, appears to be larger this time around, but by no means an order of magnitude larger. It’s also possibly that the total number of forces involved, factoring in pro-Turkish militia groups, is smaller than in prior operations. 

Second: Turkey’s invasion and the US’ pending withdrawal could have greater implications for regional dynamics than in the past.
This is also partly true. If all US forces do indeed leave Syria, the SDF will be on its own and forced to find accommodation with Assad in order to defend itself against Turkey. This quickly becomes complicated for Russia, which entered the Syrian civil war to keep Assad in power by bombing non-state actors that had no real way to defend against airstrikes. Turkey, though, is a modern nation state with the second largest army in NATO. Russia’s desire to avoid such a confrontation with Turkey is why I predicted last August – when most outlets were claiming that an Assad offensive against Idlib was imminent and only a matter of time – that nothing beyond limited strikes around Idlib’s periphery would occur. To date, Assad has not recaptured Idlib, though he desperately wanted to, and TAF forces remain in Idlib. Holding Assad back was Russia, which desperately wanted to avoid getting dragged into a war with Turkey by letting Assad off his leash, or worse, by losing control of him.

I’ll discuss the geopolitical implications further in a subsequent article. However, I don’t think geopolitics alone can account for the greater coverage that this invasion has received in US by mass media, since geopolitics and balance of power dynamics rarely seem to capture the collective imagination of the American public, broadly speaking.

This leads me to the third and what I think is the most convincing explanation for why Turkey’s third invasion has garnered greater attention in the US.

Third: domestic politics is influencing media coverage of this topic now more than it did in the past since it fits neatly into familiar partisan narratives.
What caught me off guard about my cousin’s question was that it seemed like the news he was consuming was discussing Turkey’s most recent invasion as if it were novel. Something new. But it wasn’t. Neither are Trump’s comments about a rapid, hastily organized withdrawal of US forces from Syria. Last December, in response to Turkish President Erdogan’s constant threats to invade Syria (again), Trump announced that all US forces in Syria (about 2,000 soldiers at the time) would leave the country completely within 100 days. Clearly, that hasn’t happened – 1,000 soldiers did leave, but 1,000 remain. This caused some consternation at the time but nothing like the visceral reaction and broad coverage we’re seeing today.

(Aside: This is a good time to mention my first axiom of political analysis: politicians lie. Trump does seem more serious this time around about withdrawing forces, but there is clearly precedent for him saying one thing and doing another, in Syria and elsewhere. As of October 18th the only intel I can gather claims that about 50-100 US forces have left the safe zone, an area outlined in an agreement between Turkey and the US. An unknown number of US forces remain.)

It’s highly likely that Trump was looking for a distraction from the impeachment process, which was prompted by what looks to be, at least so far, fairly damning evidence of Trump’s attempt to collude with the Ukrainian government for domestic political gain. What better time to fulfill his campaign promise to "bring the troops home”? And while he’s at it, why not write a batty public letter to Erdogan about making a “good deal” that would limit the extent of Turkey’s offensive?

Many in my own echo chamber are pointing to Erdogan’s response to the letter – throwing it in the trash – as evidence of Trump’s persistent insanity. Yet this is mere diplomatic theatre. Erdogan has not forgotten about the run on the lira that occurred late last year, which led to a precipitous decline in Turkey’s foreign exchange reserves, threatening economic crisis. These events occurred in part due to limited US sanctions and targeted tariffs on Turkish steel. A serious economic crisis at home could quickly turn public opinion against a costly military operation. Should economic malaise drag on for too long, it could easily sap support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development party. The US’ leverage is real.

This third explanation should be disheartening to Trump’s critics, not because he’s using a cheap political tactic to draw attention away from the impeachment process, but because it’s a sign that he still has substantial power in setting the parameters of the conversation that takes place in America’s public sphere and in major news outlets. Turkey’s invasion is a major development in the tragic history of the Syrian civil war, and it will have an impact on broader geopolitical dynamics. But it is neither new nor surprising, and it requires more time to understand than most mainstream outlets can afford to dedicate to it.

This article is the first in a mini-series that will aim to provide that context, ReConsider style. By the end I hope to have answered my cousin’s deceivingly poignant question.

If there are specific aspects that you’d like me to focus on, email me at xander@reconsidermedia.com and let me know. Listeners of our podcast know that Erik and I take listener and reader requests seriously and have made several podcasts based on them.




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