Turkish Invasion of Northeast Syria Looks Imminent
By: John Dunford
Key Takeaway: Turkey is preparing to invade Northeastern Syria despite U.S. efforts to de-escalate tensions through a joint security mechanism along the border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on October 5 that “We have made our preparations, completed our operation plans” and that air and ground operations will begin within days. The Turkish offensive will likely target the Arab-majority city of Tel Abyad in Northern Raqqa Province. It will create an opportunity for ISIS to achieve breakout success in eastern Syria while the U.S. partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), fights Turkey along the border. Pro-Assad regime forces could also attempt to exploit the chaos to seize oil fields currently under SDF control.
Turkey is preparing to invade Northeastern Syria despite U.S. efforts to de-escalate tensions through a joint security mechanism along the border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on October 5 that “We have made our preparations, completed our operation plans” and that air and ground operations will begin within days.  The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are currently withdrawn to 5-14km (varies by location) from the Turkish border in accordance with a US-Turkey security agreement reached on August 27.  Turkey remains unsatisfied with this progress. It has demanded to increase the depth of the security mechanism to 30km and to resettle at least 2 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey into the zone, which the YPG will not accept.  Erdogan presented this proposal at the UN General Assembly on September 24.  Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar reiterated these demands in a phone call with the U.S. Secretary of Defense two days before Erdogan announced that operations will begin.  It is unclear how far into Syria Turkey will attempt to push. Turkey may conduct a limited operation in an attempt to compel the U.S. and YPG to accept Turkey’s demands.
Turkey will likely use Syrian proxy forces in addition to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to conduct the offensive. Head of the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG) Abdurrahman Mustafa announced the merger of the two Turkish proxy forces in Syria under SIG Defense Ministry, during a ceremony in Sanliurfa Province on October 5: the Syrian National Army (SNA) based in northern Aleppo and the National Liberation Front (NLF) based in Idlib. [6, 7] A greater unification of Turkish proxy forces has previously been an indicator of upcoming Turkish military operations. Turkey previously announced the formation of the SNA in the weeks prior to Turkey’s last offensive against the YPG in January 2018 in the Afrin district of northwest Syria.  The new merger indicates Turkey intends to use this proxy force to clear and hold territory that it seizes. Turkish forces will likely support these proxies with air and fire support. TSK has deployed convoys with armored vehicles and heavy weapons to Akcakale, Sanliurfa Province across from Tel Abyad in Northern Raqqa since October 2.  Turkish Special Forces will likely participate as well. The subordination of Turkey’s military proxies to the SIG indicates that Erdogan intends to assert this entity as the governing authority in areas it seizes, which is consistent with how he has administered areas seized farther west to date.
ISIS may achieve breakout success in eastern Syria if Turkey invades. The military coalition the YPG leads, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), will pull military forces away from detention facilities, IDP camps, and other stabilization tasks south of the border region in order to fight Turkish forces. An SDF spokesperson stated on October 5 that the SDF “will not hesitate to turn any unprovoked attack by Turkey into an all-out war on the entire border.”  The SDF began to dig trenches south of the border near Tel Abyad on October 5 in anticipation of a Turkish attack.  ISIS is already preparing to conduct prison break operations in Syria and Iraq.  The SDF’s de-prioritization of the fight against ISIS will provide ISIS an opportunity to accelerate its plans. The offensive will also leave SDF positions at key oil infrastructure in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province at risk. Iranian-backed militias and Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units have reinforced positions in Deir ez-Zour in response to three consecutive weeks of anti-Iran and anti-regime protests in SDF-held Deir ez-Zour.  The pro-regime coalition could leverage these reinforcements to launch an offensive to take the oil fields while the U.S. and SDF are distracted in the border areas.
1. [“East Euphrates :Erdogan Announces Military Operation in Syria by Land and Air “Today or Tomorrow”” BBC Arabic, October 5, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-49946001?ocid=socialflow_twitter; Cagan Koc, “Erdogan Signals Imminent Turkish Incursion of Northeast Syria,” Bloomberg, October 5, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-05/erdogan-signals-imminent-turkey-incursion-of-northeast-syria.
2. Hisham Arafat, “SDF Command Reveals Details About Buffer Zone in Northeast Syria,” Kurdistan24, August 16, 2019, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/analysis/1b44b8a4-ff0c-44e0-98fe-51c4682e....
3. Ilhan Tanir, “Locals in northern Syria ready to resist Turkish incursion – Kurdish leader,” September 26, 2019, Ahval, https://ahvalnews.com/rojava/locals-northern-syria-ready-resist-turkish-incursion-kurdish-leader.
4. “Turkiye’nin Suriye’de Guvenli Bolge Plani Hazir,” TRT Haber, September 25, 2019. https://www.trthaber.com/haber/gundem/turkiyenin-suriyede-guvenli-bolge-plani-hazir-432682.html
5. The U.S. Department of Defense refers to the agreement as a security mechanism. The Turkish Ministry of Defense uses the term safe zone or peace corridor. [“Minister Akar Speaks with U.S. Counterpart Esper,”] Turkish Ministry of Defense, October 3, 2019, https://msb.gov(.)tr/SlaytHaber/3102019-87585; “Readout of Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper Phone Call With Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar,” U.S. Department of Defense, October 3, 2019, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/1979749/readout-of-secretary-of-defense-mark-t-espers-phone-call-with-turkish-minister/.
6. [“New Structure of the National Army After the Merger with the National Liberation Front,”] Enab Baladi, October 4, 2019, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/332601.
7. “SIG Announces Merger Between National Army & National Liberation Front,” National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, October 4, 2019 http://en.etilaf.org/all-news/news/sig-announces-merger-between-national...
8. Ezgi Yazici and John Dunford, “Turkey’s Threat to Push Further into Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, July 24, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/07/turkeys-threat-to-push-further-into.html.
9. XXVII, Twitter, October 2, 2019, https://twitter.com/XXVII27_/status/1179526127397822466; TRT World Now, October 3, 2019, https://twitter.com/TRTWorldNow/status/1179765277803892736; XXVII, Twitter, October 2, 2019, https://twitter.com/XXVII27_/status/1179517937272725506;Numerous Armoured Vehicles Are Being Sent to Sanliuraf Akcakale Border, XXVII, Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4coPhyVtruM&feature=youtu.be
10. @MustefaBali, Twitter Post, October 5, 2019, 5:02 a.m., https://twitter.com/mustefabali/status/1180407996012257280
11. @StepAgency, October 5, 4:03 p.m., https://twitter.com/Step_Agency/status/1180574159614681088.
12. John Dunford and Brandon Wallace, “ISIS’s Campaign to Escape Detention in Iraq and Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, October 4, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/10/isiss-campaign-to-escape-detention-in.html.
13. [“New Military Reinforcements of the Regime Reach Deir ezZor,”] Baladi News, October 2, 2019, https://www.baladi-news.com/ar/news/details/51784/تعزيزات_عسكرية_جديدة_للنظام_تصل_دير_الزور; “Russia, Syria, Iran Hold Military Drills Near U.S. Forces in Deir ezZor,” Al Masdar, October 2, 2019, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/russia-syria-iran-hold-military-drills-near-us-forces-in-deir-ezzor/; [“Euphrates Post: SDF Demands Not to Demonstrate Against the Regime Next Friday .. The Latter Mobilizes its Forces,”] Halab Today,September 25, 2019, https://halabtodaytv.net/archives/103476; Hussein al-Khatib, [Demonstrations in Deir ezZor Demand the Exit of the Iranian Militia from the East of the Euphrates,”] Noon Post, September 26, 2019, "http://www.noonpost.com/content/29533" http://www.noonpost.com/content/29533.