The news is out, Turkey has crossed the border into Syria with tanks and special operators in order to enforce a FSA-operation against ISIS in Jarabulus. While the territory has held by Da’esh for years, Ankara has moved just now because the YPG-led SDF has showed it’s aspirations to free the City. And given Turkey’s Kurdish Independence phobia this was the only pragmatic way to claim the city for itself.
In many way, the following action is a return to Davutoglu’s first actionable strategic option in Syria to resolve some issues: keep Kurdish independence in check; keep ISIS out of the border; give a non-Turkish territory option for many refugees pouring in. While Transylvania Intelligence has announced the operation with 12 hours before it began (see Facebook page), myself, the founder of the site, have predicted this action and it’s main actors and elements (minimum cross-border Turkish intervention, FSA and Turkmen lead) from August 2nd 2015. Here you have an Intelligence Prospective Analysis regarding a possible Turkish intervention to enforce the FSA and Turkmen groups to establish a “safe-zone” in northern Syria, west of the Euphrates, that I wrote in summer 2015. At that time, thanks to an OSINT provider I’ve come to think heavily of a Turkmen-centered operation tendency of Turkey so most of the analysis is emphasizing the emerging role of the Turkmens. But later on,some of the Turkmen’s got incorporated in the US-backed SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) but their presence, no doubly became mainstream – especially after Turkey downed a Russian jet. The essence of presenting this now is to underline that a Turkish intervention was planned way before but needed more political support to occur. While the text is 4,300 words-long, you can jump at the methodology result interpretation to catch the August 2015 forecast.
August 2nd, 2015 “Turkey’s game changer”/ Prospective Intelligence Analysis
by Ionut Sutea
The Suruc bombings fueled the evolution of the latest development. The ISIS suicide bombings against Kurdish and Turkish leftist activists in Suruc instigated PKK affiliated members to kill Turkish policemen near the border – blaming them for not doing enough to stop the attacks.
Also, an ISIS attack left Turkish soldiers dead on the border – a last drop for Ankara on green lighting air strikes not only against the Islamic state in Syria but also against the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq. These developments were not only controversial but also ambivalent on what will come next.
Due to this attack, Turkey invoked Article 4 which states that “the parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened.” After the Brussels meeting we found out that the US and Turkey are already conducting negotiations for a further strategy in Syria, and that NATO is standing firm with its partner. Not only NATO, but also the UN is recognizing Turkey’s right to conduct air strikes against PKK elements. After this turn of events, Turkey finally let the US Air Force use its Incirlik air base to conduct air strikes in Syria, after years of reluctance.
Starting from this point, the international community has been filled with anxiety and uncertainties on what will happen next. The implications of Turkey’s intervention in the war clearly changes the interaction dynamics between the waging actors, also further sinking the Syrian civil war into more multilateral ambiguous relations that already characterize the Arab Winter.
- A Turkish national security concern.
Agreed Intelligence has been reached inside our institution which presents the Turkish retaliation not only as a national sovereignty and integrity necessity but also as a response in which it assures individual security for Turkey’s policemen and military personal in the south-east region and the state’s border; deterring hostile actors from perpetuating more aggression.
The door is open for terrorism threats.
This official intervention in the war puts Turkey in a targeted position from the IS, PKK, and other possible hostile Kurds. The slow, yet certain, scrapping of peace between Turkey and the PKK forecasts instability in the south-east region of the state.
The recent arrests of almost 1,300 suspects of terrorism (IS and PKK) showcases a true network of illegal activities that was probably just on “standby”. While Turkey has taken a mature step by intervening in Syria, this does raise a certain amount of vulnerability for its homeland. Most likely, the government will and should boost security measures which include detaching huge numbers of police and military personnel in major locations, enforcing protection on political parties’ headquarters, and boosting up surveillance and customs activities.
Besides internal measures, Turkey has an excellent tool not only for discouraging aggression but for projecting power, as well – NATO.
NATO 4 meeting – a deterrence tool
Turkey was embraced by full support from NATO, which unilaterally condemned any kind of terrorist actions and announced that the Alliance stands by its member. While Turkey hasn’t requested troops or military assistance, Erdogan announced that the allies should be prepared to do so, if needed. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, mentioned that the US and Turkey are already having bilateral talks on a co-op Syrian strategy, with one of the objectives being the creation of an ISIL-free buffer zone. In these circumstances, Turkey already approved the use of the Incirlik air base for US fighter jets, regardless of its mission.
But the US-Turkish talks were already in progress since the beginning of July, plans for a bilateral intervention in Syria would have developed anyway. Prospection on the Brussels meeting indicates that it’s intent was a good PR deal for Turkey, which further implies a valuable deterrence tool towards any threats – both from ISIL and the PKK.
The meeting sends a clear message that any hostile party trying to attack Turkey will face colossal consequences – 28 of them, to be exact. The fact that Turkey hasn’t requested any kind of military assistance sends another cryptic message. Ankara used this channel to project power, to show that they not only want to deter enemies, but to threaten them as well.
The biggest interest for controversial groups in Syria is keeping NATO away; this wasteland of a war has benefited from not having a competent and powerful military actor involved with ground troops. They will all keep away from conventional attacks at least. But due to Turkey’s close proximity, even a terrorist attack could make a special case for invoking Article 5. How would it be if Russia would use a terrorist attack in Warsaw, Vilnius, or Riga? I say that Article 5 would be in order, even if it would be a camouflaged attack by the perpetrator – as it was invoked when the US was attacked on 9/11.
Enemies of Turkey should be advised that even if this meeting could have had a character of resilient deterrence, it surely did not say that Article 5 is not a huge possibility – especially now, when Moscow is trying to test NATO’s commitment to this legislation.
- US – Turkey military strategy in Syria.
Now it is clearer than ever that Turkey is taking a front line role in the fight against terrorism coming from Syria. The motive for US reliance on Kurdish ground troops is the lack of other partners willing to intervene. It’s no secret that the US has no clear strategy against ISIS, but it isn’t entirely their fault, circumstances like the lack of allies contributed to this situation. But now that Turkey is in the open, Washington and Ankara are already developing a solution that could be implemented ASAP.
Rumors of a buffer zone have been circulating for a while, but now that we officially know it is a go, further details are needed, but kept secret for obvious security reasons. The leitmotifs of these efforts are the southern Turkish air bases, which will be opened for the US to use in the Coalition’s efforts, but also to enforce the buffer zone, the co-op air support provided by Turkey and the US, and a (maybe third party) ground force to ensure its implementation on the battlefield.
The ISIL-free buffer zone.
There have been rumors of several interpretations in the past about this strategy. One of them included a synchronized invasion by the Turkish armed forces from the north and the Jordanian army from the south to create parallel buffer zones. The Jordanians now have the UAE air force under their command in the Coalition, so it may need further talks with Abu Dhabi before making any decisions, even if ISIS is closer to them than ever. After Lebanon was breached in 2014, actions point to Jordan as next.
The most prominent possibility is a Turkish-coordinated intervention in Syria, with joint air support from Ankara and Washington. The confirmed location of the buffer zone is west of the Euphrates River stretching 100 km on the border and 40 km into Syria. The objective of this perimeter is to secure the Turkish border exclusively from ISIS invasions and may even serve as a safe haven for Syrian refugees inside Turkey that want to return to their country. Air support will target ISIS and possible Al-Nusra – an Al-Qaeda franchise – forces.
Erdogan and other Turkish officials have frequently referred to the buffer zone as a “no-fly zone” as well, which adds a duality to the strategy – not only against jihadists – who do not possess jets – but against Assad’s forces, also.
Loyalist governmental forces are also fighting on the northern front and al-Assad still considers himself in control and the only legitimate power in the state. An invasion or an attempt to create a buffer zone which will obviously attack his sovereignty will give him no choice but to respond. And a no-fly zone implies that any aircraft flying in the respective perimeter will be brought down. So, this strategy may finally be addressing one of Turkey’s arch enemies – Assad – betting on his autocratic neediness to act while still having air power and Iran’s support.
With the air support matter well under wraps, there is still the question of who will Turkey prefer to use as a proxy, the ground troops to facilitate the implementation of the buffer zone. Ankara’s pluralist hostile approach towards factions fighting in the war leaves them with almost no option: Turkey won’t intervene with their own forces, the Kurds are off the table, the Opposition forces lack moderate rebels, while the ones trained and equipped under the Pentagon program number well under 100 soldiers.
Present add-on: a de-facto no fly-zone has been enforced by the US on the Assad Regime after Su-24 fighter jets bombed YPG fighters in Al-Hasakah near the location of US Special Operators. While the Pentagon doesn’t use the term “no fly zone”, they made it clear that they’ve emphasized to Assad that if their soldiers and allies are strikes again they will down those jets. (source)
- Scenario methodology- who will contribute the most to the Turkish/US buffer zone?
Being a 21st century insecurity environment, unexpected “black swan” factors can easily find their way into the calculation, though deemed unrealistic. Even a precise strategic forecast is subject to human limitations, and the power vacuum created in Syria is a provider of uncertainty; however, there is still room for plausible foresight that can be well speculated.
The following methodology is inspired by Huer’s and Shoemaker’s Scenario planning, which pits different situations against each other to compete in an inconsistency race for the most proof-worthy of them. Using brainstorming, red team and devil’s advocate practices, we came up with the 4 possible scenarios regarding who will contribute the most to the Turkish/US buffer zone.
Scenario 1: FREE SYRIAN ARMY (OPPOSITION FORCES).
The Opposition forces have become more and more controversial due to the fall of moderate and secular forces, which have been too small in number and overwhelmed by more radical factions that took the spotlight. In this light of events, most of them have disbanded or fragmented further. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Turkey has publicly supported their efforts against Assad’s dictatorship regime, but so did most of the international community. While no one is opposing them, they have lost public support and made national leaders think twice before sending weapons to radical Salafist suspected (some jihadist) groups, that could one day backfire on them.
The Opposition is indeed organized by legitimate political organizations like The Syrian National Council which is considered by most of the states as the real legitimate power and an interim government. This Council unites minorities, secular dissidents and the Muslim Brotherhood under the same umbrella. But, over time, these secular elements disbanded and joined other radical groups; some of them even al-Nusra or ISIS.
Rebels with the Free Syrian Army told the International Business Times that many fighters among the moderates have defected to other groups that are better equipped and in a better position to seize territory — not least, to Jabhat al-Nusra. “As we struggled to find who in the Syrian opposition to work with, some in the Gulf were funding extremist elements that had gained popular support simply because they were the best organized on and off the battlefield,” said Deutch.
Even though the US has periodically supported opposition groups – Harakat Hazm – they haven’t been able to continue a good working relationship with them due to the ground reality of their religious orientation towards politics and back channel collaborations. There is a largely pro-Sunni factor in the opposition forces which could lead to a sectarian dominance over the country. In a US Congressional report, a select initiative to unite several smaller groups under the same governance is the “Southern Front Forces.” Although described as “pledging their support for secular governance” and “eschew coordination with Nusra and other extremists fronts,” the same congressional report also states skepticism – “the willingness of Front members to abide to these guidelines may vary considerably”. The 35,000 soldiers from the Southern Front Force are one of the few groups viewed with skepticism by the international community.
The Islamic Front is also bad publicity for the Opposition; although they sometime collaborate other time fight with the Free Syrian Army, they incorporate and are aligned with several Salafist groups. The Front’s objective is to impose an Islamic State based on Sharia laws in the New Syria, and clearly rejects concepts like secularity and representative democracy, even if they are opposing tyranny.
Generally speaking, the Opposition forces do posses enough manpower, training, and battle experience, but they are too badly organized as military entities, lacking hierarchy and full alignment or devotion to Western compatible causes. Seeing how quick alignments change and radicalization arises, there exists the possibility of giving arms to a particular moderate group, only to later find them in the hands of an extremist group. And splitting the Opposition front in two – radical and secular – will risk further fragmentation of the conflict, aiding al-Nusra or ISIS by default, because they will receive a large number of radicals, fueled by rejection from the West, which will try to join them.
Scenario 2: ANHRAR ASH-SHAM.
Anhrar ash-Sham is a controversial Salafist opposition group that has been allegedly working with the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra, but have also worked with several groups like the Islamic Front under different circumstances. It is important to bear in mind that the mentioned Salafist group has allegedly already received support from Turkey, so Ankara has an established working relationship with them.
From a political standpoint their orientation is well camouflaged by different humanitarian actions, like the rescue of NBC journalists from Assad’s forces, and the aiding of wounded civilians. The West has already tried in the past, unsuccessfully, to get the group under the command of the Free Syrian Army, but the moderate front has lately fragmented and collapsed.
Anhrar ash-Sham is not labeled as a terrorist group and is still carefully prospected as a circumstantial- unconventional ally. As mentioned earlier, they have been politically smart by choosing not to mention anything about Jihadism. It is true that their vision is also one of a pro-Sunni Islamic state in Syria, dictated by Sharia law. Even if they lack expansionist aspiration, they do oppose Alawites and other Shia minorities. Nonetheless, the US attacked them in 2014 and considers them as being a threat.
The viability of this possibility is due to its proximity to the area where the buffer zone is reported to be created – their HQ is in the Idlib Governorate, and they even have troops in Aleppo – and their numbers are reportedly to be 10-20,000, a large enough number to secure the zone. They also are viewed as very well trained and battle successful, many of them have been rumored to be Al-Qaeda veterans. The best way to describe what exactly the group’s perspective is this quote from a New York Times interview from July 2012 with one of Anhrar ash-Sham’s fighters: “I agree with al-Qaida on certain things and disagree on others”.
In conclusion, although they are mixed-up with ill-reputed people and have an incompatible ideology with what the West seeks in the Middle East, they do have a convenient geostrategic troop placement, the manpower, and experience needed plus the determination against Assad to be a part of Turkey’s plans, plans that may place them in conducting the ground enforcement for the buffer zone – under covert circumstances, of course. The fact that Qatar – which is a key ally in the Coalition – is reported to be behind the funding and co-supporting the group alongside Turkey could have significant importance in this matter.
Scenario 3: THE SYRIAN TURKMEN ARMY.
Based on reports and rumors (some confirmed, some unconfirmed) there have already been meetings between Turkey’s intelligence officers and lieutenants, representatives of the Turkmen Brigades, the Syrian Democratic Turkmen Movement, the Syrian Turkmen National Bloc, and other such factions, with the goal of uniting under a single Turkmen Assembly and playing a major part in Ankara’s strategy towards Syria.
The number of ethnic Turks in Syria is not well known, but different statistics point out to 3,000,000. Even though the official number of the Syrian Turkmen Brigades is unconfirmed, reports say that they number up to 10,000 soldiers, but being scattered all over the country – Latakia, Homs, Raqqa, Damascus – their strength in the Aleppo region is only about 3,000 soldiers. This governorate is the main focus point for Turkey’s strategy, being the selected place for the buffer zone/safe zone to be created.
The Syrian Turkmen have been in Syria since before Ottoman times – Oghuz tribes migrated there around 1060-1070, under the Seljuk Empire. They are spread throughout the country, but the largest concentration is in the North-west Mountains of Syria, Aleppo, and some major enclaves near Damascus and Latakia.
While lacking the needed numbers for an assured intervention against so many well-trained and armed actors, and possibly facing rejection on Washington’s part, based on the fear of ethnical tensions that could be created with the Kurds, the Turkmen Army is one of the few factions from Syria that want a fully democratic and secular state. Not only do they oppose Islamic intervention in politics, they also heavily oppose Assad, ISIS, Al-Nusra and have never had connections with radicalized Salafist groups.
Even though they are not yet trained and armed well enough, don’t have the same amount of battle experience like the rest, they do possess the best political solution for NATO to support. According to CNN Turk, Turkey has already negotiated and drafted a unifying and training program that projects 5,000 Turkmen soldiers to enforce the safe zone (ISIL-free buffer zone) . They will fully benefit from Turkish air support and security against possible governmental forces, ISIL or Al-Nusra.
Scenario 4: THE KURDS.
Turkey’s air strikes against PKK camps in northern Iraq, alleged shootings on the Syrian border against YPG and the further deterioration of internal political relations between Kurdish parties and the AKP are indications that the Kurds could have a minimal role in this new step of the Coalition’s fight against ISIS – especially since Ankara has received overwhelming political support from the US and other NATO allies.
Since only the PKK is labeled as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU, its counter-part from Syria, the YPG, could have a certain role in this new phase. Even if the YPG is the military wing of the PYD, that has been formed with the help of the PKK, they have the best working relations with the US among all factions from Syria, and have acted as Washington’s ground forces in the fight.
However, even if the US could convince Turkey to not be hostile towards the YPG, too, there is a deadlock – the YPG is not fully and publicly against Assad’s forces. While they could pursue greater autonomy or independence even if a victorious Assad would remain in power, the Kurds would benefit in an equal measure, perhaps even more than if an Islamic-oriented regime would be imposed which would restrict any aspiration of self-determination.
After all, this is exactly what Erdogan has requested from the YPG – to align against Assad, giving them the possibility to have a place in the New Syria.
While the Kurds have been the most successful front in Syria, are secular, and the most tolerant party in this multi-ethnic country, they do not meet the requirements that the US’s biggest ally to enter the fight demands, furthermore, they pose a national threat against Turkey’s territorial integrity.
Competing hypothesis by inconsistency of scenarios.
Processing OSINT providers (newspapers, news agencies, governmental websites and think tanks), I have enforced the 4 scenarios regarding the ISIL-free buffer zone. Then, using Pao Alto’s Institute ACH 2.0.5 Intelligence Analysis software we have determined a series of results based on the credibility and relevance in accordance with our chosen pillar points. While the Syrian quagmire is relative and can’t assure that just one party is being aided and the others are not, the question of the analysis processing has been carefully formulated to gain the most plausible – not the exact – response: Who will contribute the most to the Turkish/US buffer zone?
- The Turkmen factions to be united under a Turkmen Army will most likely be the main actor to conduct battlefield-assured implementation of the objective. Even if the US would partially oppose it due to the risk of creating tensions with the YPG based on ethnic differences, the Turkmen are strongly against Assad, ISIS, and al-Nusra and are cooperating with the Free Syrian Army – being one of the few that have a completely democratic and secular view of the New Syria. The Free Syrian Army will have at least an equal role in Turkey’s endeavor in northern Syria.
- While the spotlight will be taken by the Turkmen fighters, Opposition forces will have an official or unofficial role in the Coalition’s future. In this sense, they will deter radical groups from attracting attention while profiting from the air strikes. They will not be subject to violence from Turkish or other Coalition forces, but instead they will develop a stronger help-to-help relationship with the Coalition based on reciprocal efforts – also avoiding publicizing this relation. Among the Opposition forces, only the Free Syrian Army is considered to publicly contribute to the Coalition’s actions.
- Anhrar Ash-Sham is a bit complicated. While it has been reported to be fighting alongside al-Nusra on several occasions, it is, however, supported by Qatar, which is a major Coalition partner and could be benefit from the buffer zone and air strikes. Anhrar Ash-Sham fighters will try to take advantage of government-vacated zones resulting from the Coalition’s new wave of intervention as much as possible, while trying to minimize its exposure now that al-Nusra has also been included on Turkey’s death list.
- The Kurds will feel strategic isolation from their circumstantial partners, being left out of further plans. Observing and fighting on their own, will mark growing tensions against the new, preferred Turkmen army. These rising tensions will possibly lay the foundation of an ethnic conflict between Syrian Turks and Syrian Kurds. This will offer a new and unwanted dimension to the Syrian multilateral quagmire.
- While the Turkmen Army will get the spotlight, and with the opposition rebels benefiting in certain ways, Kurds will find themselves in a similar situation as Anhrar Ash-Sham. While they are not Islamic extremists, they do have links with the PKK, which is still a terrorist organization and a larger threat than the others for Turkey.
The buffer zone is actually targeting territory that the YPG fighters would have wanted for themselves; paradoxically the Kurds will profit the least from this shift, even less than the relegated Anhrar Ash-Sham. They will come to realize that although successful in on-the-ground fighting, they never were Washington’s real partner in this fight, and never will be. Turkey is and, by all means, should be Washington’s NATO colleague, sharing a special strategic partnership in the area.
The Kurds will come to realize that they will slowly be left out of the Coalition’s plans and face strategic isolation against the new preferred Turkmen Army. As mentioned before, these rising tensions will possibly lay the foundation of an ethnic conflict between Syrian Turks and Syrian Kurds, offering a new and unwanted dimension to the Syrian multilateral quagmire. SOG acknowledges this as a high risk factor.
- The United Syrian Turkmen Army.
Syrian Turkmen, as mentioned, are close to 3,000,000 in number. They have been fighting against Assad and ISIS since the start of the war on the opposition’s rebels’ side with the Free Syrian Army, more exactly. Based on the ORSAM Think Tank’s report there are several issues that made difficult the unification of all the Syrian Turks under the same military structure until now. They hadn’t been able to organize themselves under the Ba’ath regime, just after the civil war broke.
The Syrian Turkmen National Assembly is a recent superstructure that they have managed to develop in order to unite still newly-formed political parties that represent them. In this effort they have managed to create a framework in which they could work together in the field. The political parties are secular and democratic and each of them has a military wing consisting of brigades. Lacking external support and training they have been concentrating on defensive more than offensive operations, providing security among the Turkmen villages and neighborhoods, especially in Aleppo – where one of their biggest concentrations is located.
Some of them still live under a tribal structure, while others don’t even speak the Turkish language anymore, due to the regime’s oppressive stance against them. They are largely Sunni, while some of them are Shia of Alawite-Anatolian origin. But their perspective in political affairs is a democratic and secular one. They want a government where they could preserve or revive their almost wiped out culture.
On the 28th of July, a secret meeting took place in Ankara between Turkish Intelligence officers and Turkmen Brigade representatives. The talks have been about completely unifying the troops in order to reach the number of 5,000 and also to behave, fight and move like a regular army. The troops will take positions at Aleppo and Bayırbucak, but they are also prepared to fight in Latakia.
This is the most important part of Turkey’s strategy of eliminating the ISIS threat from its border. Letting it enforce the buffer zone will also create a certainty that PKK militias will not try to breach the border. A future plan implies that once ready, troops will also fight against Assad in the northern regions.
The United Turkmen Army is said to be acting with the Turkish troops during Turkey’s cross-border operations which will be coordinated by key intelligence officials in Ankara. Turkmen from the Diaspora are also expected to take part in the initiative. A military parade in Syria’s northern mountains is reported to take place as a way of showing off the United Turkmen Army.
- The negotiations haven’t been finalized but they are expected to end sometime soon.
- There is a high-level, closed-door meeting taking place in Canada, where the future of the Coalition is being discussed, also attended by Turkey.
- Turkey’s internal security will be on high alert due to terrorist threats and attacks by both ISIS and the PKK.
- Preemptive air strikes against the PKK are also bound to continue while the militants themselves tend to respond by attacking Turkish personnel on the border or inside Turkey and critical infrastructure like gas pipelines in northern Iraq.
- Even if the Turkmen Army will secure the buffer zone, other elements from the Opposition rebels, like the Free Syrian Army could also contribute and play a major role.
- The safe zone/buffer zone was also mentioned as a no fly zone, which means that Governmental attacks are expected. The buffer zone could be Turkey’s gateway drug to Damascus.
- While Turkish forces are not expected to invade, there will probably be limited border crossings by Turkish military and intelligence advisors to coordinate the creation of the safe zone.
by Ionut Sutea.
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