By: Christopher Kozak
This post represents the first in a series examining the implications of the failed coup in Turkey. President Erdogan has extended the State of Emergency for an additional three months and has begun purging the military as well as other sectors of Turkish society in the aftermath of the coup. This series will examine both the short- and long-term implications of likely actions by Erdogan beginning as they relate to Syria and Russia.
The failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15 will undermine elements of the Syrian opposition in the near term and could also disrupt the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria. The actors that stand to gain in the short-term include the regime, ISIS, and Syrian Kurds working with the U.S. In the long-term, Turkish President Recep Erdogan will emerge stronger and better positioned to further his various objectives in Syria.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have several objectives in Syria. Erdogan has long provided covert support to opposition groups including al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafi-Jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham in order to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey participates in the U.S.-led anti-ISIS mission as well, but it uses its strategic position to block the U.S. from deeper partnership with the Syrian Kurds – the main U.S. ally in Northern Syria. In the immediate term, Turkey’s ability to implement these policies beyond its borders will be limited as Erdogan conducts an aggressive purge of state institutions, including the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT). This disruption will impose short-term costs but enable long-term benefits for Erdogan’s agenda in Syria and the region.
Erdogan supports opposition groups fighting against the regime in line with his strategic objective to reshape the region into a constellation of friendly states run by Sunni Muslims and led by Turkey. The attempted coup will disrupt this flow of material, financial, and intelligence support. The opposition will likely take an operational pause in response to this slowdown, leaving them vulnerable to pressure from pro-regime forces. President Bashar al-Assad may exploit this pause to complete the encirclement of Aleppo City before Turkey regains the initiative, eliminating a key bastion of non-jihadist opposition groups that constitute potential long-term partners for the U.S. against ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) will also likely exploit this disruption to complete the establishment of an autonomous federal region along the Syrian-Turkish Border from Aleppo to Hasaka Province. The YPG constitutes the primary partner for the U.S. in Syria but is considered a strategic threat by Turkey due to its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has used military threats and diplomatic pressure to contest all progress towards a contiguous zone ruled by the YPG in Northern Syria. In exchange for its cooperation against ISIS, Turkey received guarantees from the U.S. that the YPG would not seize the final stretch of territory between its disconnected cantons in Northern Aleppo Province. The YPG could now elect to break this commitment while Turkey remains incapable of mustering a coherent military response. This decision would set the stage for long-term ethnic conflict and force the U.S. to choose between its two most valuable partners in the fight against ISIS in Northern Syria.
ISIS could also launch new operations to reassert its control over parts of the Syrian-Turkish Border. Turkey has provided extensive military support to opposition groups along the so-called ‘Mare’a Line’ in Northern Aleppo Province as a counterweight to the Syrian Kurdish YPG. The likely disruption of this support in the immediate aftermath of the coup leaves these groups vulnerable to a renewed offensive by ISIS to seize the key cross-border hub of Azaz. ISIS may also use the current disorder within the Turkish Armed Forces along the Syrian-Turkish Border to import additional fighters and resources into Syria to bolster its ranks following several months of battlefield setbacks. ISIS could also use the confusion to smuggle new cells into Turkey in preparation for future attacks in Europe.
The U.S.-led anti-ISIS effort also stands at risk now that Erdogan holds a clear path towards authoritarian rule. Incirlik Airbase in Southern Turkey constitutes the primary base for air operations against ISIS in Northern Syria. Erdogan granted permission for the U.S. to conduct sorties from Incirlik Airbase in July 2015 in exchange for guarantees against further expansion along the border by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. The ongoing wave of purges after the coup risks undermining these advances in the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on July 18 that NATO will carefully observe whether Turkey continues to meet its “requirements with respect to democracy” in an implicit warning to Erdogan as the purges expanded to encompass ever-greater portions of civil society. On the same day, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that Turkey could “question our friendship” with the U.S. if its leaders failed to respond to a formal extradition request targeting former cleric Fethullah Gulen for his alleged role in the coup. These tensions could lead to a disruption or full cancellation of anti-ISIS operations based out of Incirlik Airbase. Turkey temporarily halted all operations out of Incirlik Airbase until July 17, while electrical power to the base reportedly remains cut. The loss of Incirlik Airbase would not preclude continued operations against ISIS in Northern Syria, but the collapse of relations would complicate ongoing military efforts and slow the current momentum against ISIS in Northern Syria.
Erdogan will use the coup attempt to remove the obstacles that constrained his ability to take a more active role in the Syrian Civil War over the long-term. The Turkish Armed Forces reportedly opposed his calls for intervention into the conflict. The ongoing purge will ultimately make the military instrument responsive to the personal ambitions of Erdogan, eliminating future roadblocks to more aggressive proposals, including the provision of anti-aircraft missiles to the opposition or the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian-Turkish Border. Any such escalation could place Turkey into direct conflict with major regional powers, particularly Iran and Russia, while applying tremendous strain to the U.S. and Europe via NATO. The coup thus raises the risk of a wider conflict that fuels the spread of regional disorder and erodes the strategic interests of the U.S.