Turkey’s Silent Al Qaeda Partner in Syria

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkey is cooperating with al Qaeda to threaten the Syrian Kurdish YPG in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intervention in Idlib Province is setting conditions for a de facto safe haven for jihadists in Syria that will jeopardize the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda.
Turkey is positioned to launch operations against the Syrian Kurdish YPG in northern Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployed armored vehicles and around 100 special forces troops to establish an ostensible ‘de-escalation zone’ in greater Idlib Province, Syria, on October 12. The cross-border intervention occurred as part of a wider deal brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran at the Astana Talks on September 14 - 15. Turkey deconflicted its deployment with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate – despite presenting its operation as a counterterrorism mission to constrain both al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Turkey instead intends to use its intervention as a launchpad for future operations against the majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated the next stage of TSK operations will focus on the “issue” of majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton on October 24. Turkey also seeks to regulate refugee flows and humanitarian aid along the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib Province ahead of anticipated pro-Bashar al Assad regime clearing operations.
Russia is taking military and diplomatic steps to block Turkey. Russia declared a ‘de-confliction zone’ over Tel Rifaat and Menagh Airbase north of Aleppo City on September 6. The Russian Armed Forces have also maintained a detachment of military observers in Afrin Canton since March 20. Russia is attempting to leverage these deployments to preempt a potential Turkish offensive targeting the YPG. Russia also seeks to expand its partnership with the YPG to constrain and ultimately expel the U.S. from northern Syria. Russia is actively attempting to coopt the YPG into a diplomatic rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the expense of the U.S Anti-ISIS Coalition. The U.S. – YPG partnership is vulnerable following the U.S. decision to support Baghdad over the Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence aspirations in northern Iraq. Russia could successfully exploit this seam to deprive the U.S. of its primary source of influence in Syria. Russia is also positioned to frustrate Erdogan’s strategic ambitions in northern Syria, driving Turkey into deeper partnership with al Qaeda.