Air strikes have been hitting Syria from inside Turkey since late July, targeting the Kurdish militia known as the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel—the People’s Protection Units. For years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he intends to destroy the YPG, and in recent months he’s warned increasingly of a Turkish incursion into northern Syria to do it. The YPG controls territory in the country’s north, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, outside the reach of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But YPG fighters are mostly Syrian Kurds, with Arabs and some foreigners in the mix, and the militia doesn’t have any ambitions in Turkey at all. Meanwhile, the YPG has become an ally of the United States, which armed and supported it as it helped defeat the Islamic State in 2014 and 2015, and the group has since continued to work closely with the U.S. to oust the Assad regime in Syria—an objective the allies have shared with Turkey. So what is Erdoğan doing?
Henri Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the author of five books about Turkey and the Kurdish people. As Barkey sees it, Erdoğan is attacking the Syrian Kurds for reasons of both domestic politics and state interest. The political motivation might be more urgent, Barkey says, because the Turkish president is facing reelection next year and has a pressing incentive to create the impression of a major military victory—turning voters’ attention away from Turkey’s struggling economy, with inflation near 80 percent and the country running short on foreign reserves. Over the longer term, Erdoğan wants to prevent Turkish Kurds from gaining autonomy in the country’s southeast—and to that end, he also wants to see the YPG, and any autonomous Kurdish rule, disappear in Syria too. The only reason why Erdoğan hasn’t invaded Syria already, Barkey says, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected the plan—because he fears Turkey would try to keep any territory it captured. Still, it’s not clear whether Putin will keep saying no, knowing how serious a rupture he could cause between Turkey and the U.S. by saying yes.
Michael Bluhm: How likely do you see it being that Turkey will invade northern Syria?
Henri Barkey: A major operation is unlikely, I’d say. The Russians don’t appear to have given the okay when Vladimir Putin met Erdoğan in Sochi in early August. The United States is very sensitive about the issue too—and has lost patience with Turkey over it.
The Russians aren’t convinced that Turkey should do it. It’s not that Moscow cares about the Kurds; it’s that the Turks have already taken over a significant chunk of territory in northern Syria—and in threatening to take over more territory, they’re effectively threatening to change the character of Syria. Which the Syrian government certainly doesn’t want.
And there would be an uproar in the U.S. Congress if Turkey invaded. Turkey has very little credit in Congress now. There used to be a significant Turkish lobby there, but I don’t imagine there’s a single member of congress or senator who would publicly defend Turkey now. If anything, there is a move in Congress to stop the Biden administration from selling F-16s to Turkey—or even from upgrading the F-16s the Turks already have. So a Turkish incursion into northern Syria would engender a very significant backlash. There’s already talk in Washington about sanctions against Turkey on account of its collaboration with Russia.
Bluhm: How much does Erdoğan want to invade? He seems repeatedly to have said over the past few months that he wants to go in and crush the YPG.
Barkey: If you gave Erdoğan unlimited freedom of action, he would send a huge number of troops across the border. There’s no question about it.
Bluhm: Yet the YPG operates exclusively in Syria—so why does Erdoğan consider them a threat?
Barkey: The YPG has become strong largely because of the United States. The U.S. started to support it in 2014, when the Islamic State, ISIS, was attacking Kobani, a major city in the Kurdish part of Syria. The U.S. president at the time, Barack Obama, asked the Turks to intervene, but they refused. So the Americans decided to help the YPG.
The YPG became the single most important force that defeated ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi army and Iraqi Kurds fizzled out in front of ISIS. The United States feels a major obligation toward the YPG, because they’ve lost a lot of men and women fighting ISIS—and still do. They control a prison that has thousands of ISIS detainees. We don’t know what would happen if they were to abandon that.
The Turks are terrified that what happened in northern Iraq will happen in northern Syria. In the 1990s, the Turks were vehemently opposed to Iraqi Kurds having any rights. They were upset about the no-fly zone that the United States created after the first Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds. That zone eventually blossomed into the Kurdistan Regional Government, the KRG, which is now part of a federal Iraq—though the Turks do get along alright with the Kurdish party that controls the KRG now.
If you gave Erdoğan unlimited freedom of action, he would send a huge number of troops across the border. There’s no question about it.
But fundamentally, Turkey is afraid that the same thing—an autonomous Kurdish region—will happen in Syria. And if it happens in Syria, what’s next? Turkey. They’re afraid that Turkish Kurds will say, The Iraqi Kurds got to be an autonomous part of a federated state. Now the Syrian Kurds got that. We should push for it too.
The Kurds in Turkey have gotten a very raw deal over the years. They have no rights as an ethnic group. Now they’re at least acknowledged to exist. For decades, the Turkish government said, There are no Kurds in Turkey.
Bluhm: Understanding Erdoğan doesn’t want an autonomous Kurdish territory in Turkey, what would he want to accomplish by invading northern Syria?
Barkey: Three things, I think.
First, Erdoğan wants to eradicate the YPG and stop the Americans’ involvement with it. It’s a Syrian organization, not Turkish. But the Turks have always seen it as part of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party—once a very powerful organization that inspired, and probably assisted and trained it. The U.S., for its part, has been transparent about what it is doing with the YPG: It’s an anti-ISIS operation, and that’s it. These people just happen to be the best fighters in the region.
Second—and this is important—Erdoğan is meanwhile up for re-election as president next June, on the same day as the vote for Parliament. Turkish news media, which are mostly controlled by Erdoğan, would make an operation in Syria look like an enormous victory. And this is one issue where the opposition doesn’t dare criticize him. The two major non-Kurdish opposition parties support Erdoğan’s Syria operations. So the idea of an invasion is something he sees as uniting the country behind him.
Third—and this is speculation—if Erdoğan controls territory in northern Syria, then he can start to move some Syrian refugees now in Turkey to areas in Syria that he controls. In the areas of Syria that Turkey already controls, they’ve kicked out the Kurds and moved in Arabs and Turks. Erdoğan would like to send some of the Syrian refugees back to Syria before the elections. The refugee issue is becoming politicized in Turkey, so sending them back would show that he’s dealing with it. To their credit, the Turks have taken in about 3.5 million Syrian refugees. But it’s been almost 11 years since the conflict started in Syria, and now there’s a backlash against the refugees, if not a huge one.
You could argue that the domestic political calculations are far more important than the state-interest calculations about the position of Kurds within Turkey and Syria. The state-interest part can wait, but the elections have to take place in June, and Erdoğan cannot afford to lose them.
Erdoğan came to power 20 years ago, and he had a very solid voting base. But there’s a new generation that doesn’t have much allegiance to him. Some do support him, but on the whole, younger people are thinking differently.
Bluhm: You mention domestic political calculations, with Erdoğan facing difficult conditions there. Inflation was high even before Russia invaded Ukraine, which has pushed inflation higher worldwide. His party lost some key local elections in recent years too. How does the internal situation in Turkey condition Erdoğan’s thinking about invading Syria?
Barkey: Syria is clearly a diversion from domestic problems. If he does make an incursion, he’ll claim it as a success. And if he does manage to send some of the Syrian refugees back, it’s icing on the cake. It puts the opposition on the defensive, and it changes the narrative at home.
The Turkish economy is a very resilient and dynamic economy, but Erdoğan has mismanaged it. He is facing a severe balance-of-payments crisis. Economists who follow Turkey say that the coming crisis is essentially a currency crisis, because they’re running out of foreign reserves to support the Turkish lira. They won’t be able to make payments on their debts in other currencies.
That would have consequences: If companies close down, then people will be unemployed. You already have signs of a decline in Western investment in Turkey. Some Arab investment is coming in, but that’s not as dynamic as Western investment, which is focused on manufacturing.
The economy is the most important problem Erdoğan faces. People in Turkey are really fed up with their economic situation. The inflation rate is about 80 percent. They say that it’s going to be 40 percent by the end of the year, but that’s not something to be proud of. If you’re going into elections with 40-percent inflation, you’re going to be punished.
Bluhm: So how do Erdoğan’s prospects for re-election look?
Barkey: Erdoğan came to power 20 years ago, and he had a very solid voting base. But there’s a new generation that doesn’t have much allegiance to him. Some do support him, but on the whole, younger people are thinking differently. The likelihood is that Erdoğan will lose—unless he cheats. So the question is, what extraordinary measures is he going to undertake?
Still, a Syria operation would certainly help. It wouldn’t be decisive, but Erdoğan is not necessarily wrong that narratives about a Syria operation, a victory, and removing Syrian refugees will have an additive value that would help him in the elections. He has to come up with some way to win, in any event. He can’t afford to lose power, because if he does, the opposition is going to go after him, his family, and his cronies.
This is going to be a decisive year for Turkey.
Bluhm: Erdoğan has met twice with Putin in the past two months. They reportedly spoke about oil and gas, weapon deals, and Turkey’s plans for Syria. Those meetings have provoked some anxiety among officials in the West. How are Turkey’s relations with Russia?
Barkey: It’s a very interesting relationship. Turkey is willing to help Putin evade sanctions. They agreed to pay for some oil purchases in Russian currency. Turkish banks will allow payments with Russian banks, which have been blocked in Europe and elsewhere. The Turks want Russian tourists, so if a Russian tourist visits with a credit card issued by a Russian bank, Turkey wants that card to work there.
I’m surprised Putin hasn’t given the Turks the okay to go into northern Syria, because that would create a major crisis between them and the U.S.
Turkey needs tourists because tourism is a major source of foreign currency. They’re facing a foreign-exchange crisis. The Turks are clearly willing to bypass sanctions in order for Erdoğan to improve his domestic situation.
The elections are the focal point. But meanwhile, the Turks have supplied the Ukrainians with drones that have been very effective against Russian forces. Putin doesn’t like that, but both leaders are wily; they know how to make deals that benefit both of them while still having points of disagreement—Syria being one of them.
Think of it from Putin’s perspective: On the one hand, why give the Turks the go-ahead in Syria, when they’re selling drones to Ukraine? On the other hand, it would be in Putin’s interest to put distance between Turkey and the United States, given the animosity between the U.S. and Russia. I’m surprised Putin hasn’t given the Turks the okay to go into northern Syria, because that would create a major crisis between them and the U.S.
Maybe this is a card he’s holding for later. If he were to give the okay, and the Turks were to go in, all hell would break loose in Washington—and the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. would really suffer. Putin knows that he could create a major crisis here, but he’s held back.
Bluhm: Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and NATO countries have been deteriorating since Turkey bought the S-400 missile-defense system from Russia in 2017—and Washington kicked Turkey out of the F-35 fighter-jet program after the S-400 arrived in Turkey in 2019. This summer, Turkey is holding up the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO. How are Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and NATO?
Barkey: The Turks did the big, theatrical move with the Finland and Sweden veto. Of course, they had to backtrack, but this is another black mark for Turkey in Washington, where there’s huge bipartisan support for Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
The thing to remember about Turkey—and it gives Erdoğan a lot of room to maneuver—is that it has maybe the best real estate in the world, strategically speaking. It’s critical for the Middle East and for Russia. This gives Erdoğan a lot of latitude, and he’s used it effectively.
The Americans allowed him to get away with a lot until the S-400 crisis. The S-400 crisis was a break. The Turks were warned by the U.S. that if they bought the S-400s, then they will lose the F-35 and their share of its production. The fuselage and other parts of the F-35 were going to be built in Turkey. The Turks were also going to be a service agent, so all F-35s in NATO countries in Eastern Europe would be sent for maintenance to Turkey. Turkey would have made a huge amount of money on the program.
Really, Turkey isn’t a democracy anymore. It is an autocracy where they have elections. The press, universities, the judiciary—everything’s under Erdoğan’s control.
The Americans have allowed the Turks to get away with bad behavior in the past, so the Turks thought, The Americans are talking tough, but we’ll buy the S-400s, and they won’t do anything about it. It was a huge miscalculation. Erdoğan and the Turks were shocked. They really didn’t expect the U.S. to respond that strongly. It was the first time the United States said, No. You’re going to pay a price. We don’t care how important you are, this is way beyond what we can accept.
Bluhm: How bad are U.S.-Turkey relations now?
Barkey: They’re pretty bad. President Biden ignored Erdoğan and didn’t meet with him for a long time. The Turks and Erdoğan were very upset about it.
Really, Turkey isn’t a democracy anymore. It is an autocracy where they have elections. The press, universities, the judiciary—everything’s under Erdoğan’s control. That’s also a problem for Biden. But the U.S. still has to deal with Turkey because of Ukraine, Syria, and other issues. Turkish and American officials talk to each other every day about a variety of issues—from counterterrorism to trade, nuclear issues, and so on. Those conversations haven’t stopped. But at the highest level, the relationship is bad—and the Biden administration has made it clear that they’re not fond of Erdoğan.
Still, the administration said, We want to sell F-16s to Turkey, and we want to modernize the F-16s that Turkey already has. That’s a justifiable position, because the F-16s are going to be there long after Erdoğan is gone. Turkey is a NATO country. The United States wants a critically situated NATO country to have a robust air force. They’re not going to starve the air force of a major NATO country just because they’re angry with Erdoğan.
Bluhm: How do you see the likeliest scenarios for what Erdoğan will end up doing in northern Syria?
Barkey: In the past, the Turks managed to go into Syria and take territory because the previous U.S. president, Donald Trump, gave them the okay and withdrew U.S. troops from northern Syria. That’s important background.
Turkey is already doing a military operation in Syria. On a near daily basis, Turkey is attacking the YPG and killing their fighters. They even killed the number-two person in the YPG about two weeks ago. It’s a little shocking that the U.S. was largely silent about this and isn’t preventing the Turks from conducting air strikes and drone strikes against the YPG. But that tells Erdoğan he can get away with it, and so he’ll continue to assassinate people. He doesn’t need a major military operation; he can just escalate the things he’s already doing. Eventually, he’ll say, We’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve without a major military operation. He’ll try to sell that domestically as a great victory. He has to, he’s been talking about it for such a long time.