Analysis: What’s next for Turkey in Syria?

The Euphrates Shield ‘reached its natural limits’, but Turkey is not ready to leave Syria, according to analysts.

Turkish soldiers participate in an exercise on the border line between Turkey and Syria near the southeastern city of Kilis
Turkish soldiers participate in an exercise on the border line between Turkey and Syria near the southeastern city of Kilis, Turkey [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

On March 29, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the successful completion of the “Euphrates Shield” military operation in northern Syria, but suggested the country may launch other cross-border campaigns in the future.

Turkish analysts told Al Jazeera that Yildirim’s announcement was not surprising as it came after the operation reached its “natural limits” but insisted that they do not expect Turkey to leave the region anytime soon. 

“Yildirim’s announcement was merely an acknowledgement of the situation on the ground,” Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Istanbul’s Global Source Partners, told Al Jazeera. “At the moment Turkey has little room for manoeuvre in northern Syria – in both diplomatic and military terms.”

At the beginning of the 216-day operation, which was launched against ISIL and Kurdish forces last August, Turkish forces took the border town of Jarablus and cleared ISIL fighters from a roughly 100km stretch of the border.

In late February, Turkey announced that it also took control of Al Bab, an ISIL stronghold. 

“In practice, the Euphrates Shield came to an end nearly a month ago, when Turkey’s sphere of influence in Syria – the triangle between Jarablus, Al Rai and Al Bab – was surrounded by American marines to its east, Russian soldiers to its west and the Syrian regime forces to its south,” said Metin Gurcan, a Turkish security analyst and a research fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center (IPC), Sabanci University.

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Transactional alliances

In early March, the US deployed a relatively small force to the outskirts of Manbij – a town east of Al Bab – in what the Pentagon called a “reassure and deter” mission. This development, according to Gurcan, brought an end to Turkey’s plans to clear Kurdish forces from this strategic Syrian city and expand its influence further east. “And when Russia announced that it was setting up a military base in Afrin to train Kurdish forces, Ankara realised it cannot move west either,” he added.

Turkey is now in a situation where Russians control the west of the Euphrates River and the US controls the east - and neither party seems to be supportive of Turkey's needs and interests in the region.

by Atilla Yesilada, political analyst

Turkey’s unsuccessful “transactional alliances” with these global powers drew the end date of the Euphrates Shield Operation forward, according to analysts.

The Turkish government formed transactional alliances with both Russia and the United States, but failed to pull either party completely to its side in Syria, Yesilada said.

Both the US and Russia are steadily deepening their ties with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its Arab allies who operate under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

Ankara believes that they are doing so at Turkey’s expense, and says the YPG is directly linked to the PKK, an armed group that has been fighting a four-decade bloody conflict in Turkey.

“So, Turkey is now in a situation where Russians control the west of the Euphrates River and the US controls the east – and neither party seems to be supportive of Turkey’s needs and interests in the region,” Yesilada said.

“The operation simply reached its natural limits,” he said. “Turkey realised that it could not achieve anything more in that area without clashing with the US, Russia or the Syrian regime.”

“But this does not mean that Turkey is ready to leave Syria completely,” he added. “Turkey does not have the luxury to say it is now done with Syria.”

At a crossroads

According to analysts, Turkey is now at a crossroads and needs to decide whether it is going to keep its troops in northern Syria. “The Turkish government did not clarify this yet, but we have every indication to believe that Turkey is determined to stay in Syria, even after the end of Euphrates Shield,” Gurcan said.

“While waiting for an opportunity for a second cross-border operation, Turkey is now going to start a post-conflict reconstruction effort in the towns that it took from ISIL.”

Since September 2016, Turkey had been sending Syrian refugees back to Jarablus and other towns that it captured. According to analysts, it plans to send at least 10,000 refugees – who are currently residing in the Turkish town of Kilis – back to their hometowns in northern Syria by May this year.

“Turkey wants to send these people back, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to consolidate its influence in the region by providing support and protection for these returnees,” explained Gurcan. “But it all depends on what Russia is planning to do about Idlib.”

In the near future, Russia and its allies are expected to turn their attention completely to Idlib, the country’s last rebel-held province, according to analysts.

“If Russia decides to attack Idlib, it will need to determine a new area for it to transfer the rebel fighters and their families after the end of the battle,” Gurcan said. “Putin may allow these people to move into the Turkey-controlled area between Jarablus, Al Bab and Al Rai.”

READ MORE: Idlib’s rebel split – A crossroads for Syrian opposition

“So in a way, it may allow Turkey to continue its presence in this triangle on the condition that it hosts – and controls – undesired rebel elements.”

Yesilada, on the other hand, argued that after taking complete control of Idlib, Russia – under pressure from the Syrian regime – might force Turkey to retrieve completely from the region.

“Turkey will be forced to support the rebels in Idlib in a future battle against the regime, Russia and their allies,” Yesilada explained. “At the end of this battle, I do not think Russia will choose to send these rebels to Syrian towns controlled by Turkey.

“It will tell Turkey to retrieve its troops from northern Syria, and take Idlib’s rebel fighters into Turkey.”