In March 2020, Russia and Turkey signed a ceasefire agreement in Idlib, following a military campaign launched by the Syrian armed forces to regain control of vast areas in northwest Syria. The terms of the agreement stipulate that Turkey will maintain a foothold in Idlib, which means that it will effectively control the local economy. This is of particular importance to Ankara as Turkey has launched large investment projects in the region and deployed forces in Idlib. These steps may eventually lead to establishing a border area between Turkey and Syria. However, Turkey's recent moves, alongside the inclusion of Russian reinforcements to the area, suggest the imminent outbreak of a battle rather than the establishment of a border area in accordance with the peace agreements.
So far, Turkish military operations have resulted in sustaining four border regions, each named after Ankara's military operation to control the territory. As a result of Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and 2017, Turkey tightened its grip on the northern province of Aleppo; in 2018, it took control of the north-western province of Aleppo following Operation Olive Branch; then, in 2019, Turkey sought, through Operation Peace Spring, to occupy areas east of the Euphrates; and in 2020, the Turkish army launched Operation Spring Shield in Idlib.
The dynamics of the Syrian war changed radically after the start of the Russian military intervention in 2015. This intervention has put an end to serious efforts to change the Assad administration and has pushed the rebels, including hard-line Islamist groups, towards the northern areas bordering Turkey. As a result, tens of thousands of militants are now stationed near the Turkish border. Moreover, the number of Syrian displaced persons residing in Turkey currently amounts to 3.6 million, 1.5 million of whom live in or near the cities on the southern border, including Gaziantep, Kilis, Hatay and Urfa. Additionally, aound two million more Syrians live on the Syrian side of the border area.
Without giving any name to the upcoming operation, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at preparing the army and military intelligence for large-scale combat work in northern Syria, to complete the safe zone on the southern border with a depth of 30 kilometres. The imminent attack targets areas under Kurdish influence, supported by the United States and the "coalition forces to fight ISIS". These are the areas in which the Kurdish self-protection forces are increasing in strength and intensifying their return, following the submission of the regions of north-eastern Syria. Erdogan’s concern here is the separatist trend by the Autonomous Administration, which has resulted in Ankara deeming Kurdish organizations here as "terrorist factions" that threaten Turkey’s national security.
As with the offensive combat operations launched by the Turkish army in northern Syria, it is evident that that Ankara is preparing an expansion plan within Syria to help stabilise the border and prepare the region for settling the Syrian refugees in Turkey who are seen as threatening Turkey’s financial and demographic future.
Meanwhile, the local communities throughout the areas of influence of the Turkish army, the Syrian opposition factions, and the Kurdish Autonomous Administration are anticipating any changes in the map of the conflict. The Euphrates River, which penetrates to the fertile lands of the northeast of the country with food crops and oil resources, will not shape the structure of the contested region between the east and west of the Euphrates, but Ankara will move towards a new arrangement. Observers of Turkish affairs believe that the matter is related to the positioning of the Turkish forces, which have already begun to move with reinforcements trickling into their areas of influence from its southern borders. The upcoming military operation is linked to the Turkish elections in June of 2023, where reducing the Kurdish threat, and finalizing the refugee file, are critical cards for the candidates.
For its part, the Assad administration rejects the establishment of the buffer zone and declares that this proposal does not aim to protect the border region between the two countries. Instead, it is argues that the main objectives here are colonialism and the establishment of an explosive outpost deemed the “safe zone". The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs considered this area to be established as "ethnic cleansing and a threat to their lives, future and property" and threatens to permanently destroy the situation between the two neighbouring countries. Harut Akmanian, a researcher in international law from Harvard University in the United States, believes that:
Any meeting or decision that takes place without Syria is against international law, and also against logic, and is doomed to failure … It is not possible to imagine returning the refugees to their homes without coordination and consultation on how to organize these matters with the Syrian government in terms of logistical arrangements and settling the situation of those who are being prosecuted.
Meanwhile, the United States warned Turkey against launching any new military operation in northern Syria, stressing that such an escalation would endanger the lives of American soldiers deployed in the region. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the United States was "deeply concerned" about the announcement:
We condemn any escalation and support maintaining the current ceasefire lines … We expect Turkey to abide by the joint statement issued in October 2019 … We are aware of Turkey's legitimate security concerns on its southern border, but any new offensive will further undermine regional stability and endanger US forces in the coalition's campaign against ISIS".
On the other hand, the Kurdish forces are preparing for a fierce confrontation, at a time when observers of the scene are divided over Washington and the coalition countries’ support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Some commentators suggest that the United States will abandon them in exchange for gains in the (European-American-Russian) conflict raging in Ukraine. Academic researcher in international relations, Adam Naseer, asserts that the vision of the Turkish expansionist plan has been renewed, after it stopped under Russian and American pressure a year ago, as it was preparing for a battle similar to previous operations. Naseer believes that:
The change in international conditions led to the overthrow of all commitments, scenarios and the course of political settlements, as well as field operations … Russia's war in Ukraine made the matter develop in an unplanned manner.
The region itself is bustling with many events, and the intertwining of international interests is very complex, but Erdogan justified in his recent speech that he is taking such steps to protect his military forces on the borders from the continuous targeting and armed attacks by Kurdish organizations. On the other hand, the Syrian Democratic Forces are studying the possible scenarios and the levels of actual and expected Turkish threats. The SDF are also exchanging information with the international and guarantor powers in this regard. According to a recent press release the SDF are willing to cooperate with the Assad administration in the event that Turkey launches a new military operation against them.
On the ground, the Russian position was quick to react, by sending huge military reinforcements to its base in Ain Issa. The reinforcements contained armoured vehicles, personnel carriers, and tanks. This rapid move towards the Moscow base in Ain Issa, one of the most prominent strongholds of the SDF, suggests a close Turkish decision to incur, and Erdogan’s exploitation of the acceleration of international developments and the preoccupation of the great powers with the conflict in Ukraine.