The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will continue its strategy of flexing Turkey’s military muscle in Syria while engaging in often inflammatory rhetoric and political moves intended to play the West and Russia off each other – to his government’s benefit – for the foreseeable future. Erdoğan will most likely seize on any Syrian violation of the March 5 ceasefire agreement negotiated between Ankara and Moscow to launch new offensives in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. Moreover, Erdoğan will keep fostering the specter of a renewed migrant crisis in Europe as a bargaining chip to obtain additional assistance from the EU and NATO. This modus operandi and the “Turkish tough man” image it portrays appeals to Turkish conservatives who form Erdoğan’s support base. However, it will only continue to be successful on the domestic front provided Ankara does not pursue the stratagem to the point where it draws political and economic backlash that could adversely impact the livelihood of the average Turkish citizen.
Origins of Latest Tensions in Northern Syria
Turkey launched its latest major military operation in Syria Feb. 27. Dubbed Operation Spring Shield (Bahar Kalkanı Harekâtı), the new offensive targeted Syrian Arab Armed Forces (SAAF) elements in Idlib. Tensions between Ankara and Damascus had been rising since Syrian forces escalated their military campaign to take control of Idlib – the last rebel bastion in Syria – in late January. The SAAF has since seized control of several key areas in the governorate, including the strategic M5 Highway linking Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Turkey sees the development as a threat to the security of its border with Idlib, and clashes regularly erupted between Turkish and Syrian forces, with dozens of Turkish soldiers killed in the confrontations. President Erdoğan had warned Parliament Feb. 19 that a military operation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Idlib was only a matter of time. Ankara gave the Syrian forces until the end of February to withdraw from certain areas of the governorate or face a Turkish offensive. This represented the first time that Ankara directly engaged Syrian forces.
Ankara’s main goal was to stem the flow of additional refugees into Turkey. With more than 3 million displaced persons and migrants already residing in the country, Ankara asserts that it cannot accept additional Syrian refugees. Al-Assad’s offensive in Idlib has displaced nearly 1 million Syrians, representing the largest civilian displacement since the nation’s civil war began in 2011. The offensive has also killed hundreds of civilians since the beginning of January and prompted the Turkish government to deploy thousands of troops to the governorate to reinforce its military positions in the region.
Sources within Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense assert that Operation Spring Shield inflicted significant losses on the SAAF, including shooting down three fixed-wing aircraft and eight helicopters, destroying more than 300 military vehicles and other pieces of combat hardware, and killing or wounding more than 3,000 Syrian soldiers. Although it remains uncertain whether these figures are accurate, the military action appears to have been sufficiently robust that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan were negotiating a ceasefire within one week. It remains to be seen if Al-Assad will abide by the agreement, given that he was not involved in creating it.
In order to underscore Turkey’s concerns over Syrian refugees to its NATO allies, against the backdrop of Operation Spring Shield, Turkey opened its border with Greece Feb. 28, prompting thousands of migrants to attempt to cross into the EU and resulting in refugees and Greek border guards clashing. The Erdoğan administration asserts the move is in response to the EU’s alleged failure to live up to a deal made in 2016, under which Turkey was to receive EUR 6 billion (USD 6.85 billion) in aid in exchange for preventing refugees from entering the EU. While the EU has thus far refused to grant Turkey any further funds, it is in neither Brussels’ nor Ankara’s interests to allow the matter to become a protracted dispute.
Impact of Turkish Military Offensives in Syria on Business Operations within Turkey
Any future Turkish military operations in Syria will likely have only limited impact on business interests within Turkey. Security in the nation’s southeastern provinces has remained extremely tight since Ankara first targeted Kurdish militia in cross-border military incursions during operations Euphrates Shield (Fırat Kalkanı Harekâtı), Olive Branch (Zeytin Dalı Harekâtı), and Peace Spring (Barış Pınarı Harekâtı). Moreover, unlike the ad hoc Kurdish militias operating in Syria, the SAAF is very unlikely to stage sporadic retaliatory cross-border artillery strikes into Turkey proper, considering the potential political and military blowback that could come from a foreign state attacking the territory of a NATO member nation. Companies operating in southeastern Turkey are unlikely to face further security-related disruptions, beyond those that already exist, given that further increases in the local security posture appear to be unnecessary.
From a practical standpoint, the most likely fallout from Turkish operations will be localized transport disruptions and security deployments in response to occasional demonstrations in major cities such as Ankara, Adana, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Istanbul, and Izmir. Political, student, and civil society groups that oppose the Erdoğan administration will probably stage anti-war protests; however, such rallies would have likely occurred sporadically, with most remaining relatively small and only having a low-to-moderate impact.
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