Turkey’s incursion into Syria has opened a new front in the already complicated Syrian civil war. Turkey and the other regional powers in West Asia, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, have been active players in the Syrian conflict since 2011, but this is the first time one of them has sent its army into Syria to join combat. Ankara says the move is to fight the Islamic State; within days of rolling its tanks into Syria, Turkey declared that it had cleared the border town of Jarabulus of IS fighters. But there is little doubt that the real target of the Turkish forces are the Kurdish militias. The IS had been active in Jarabulus since 2013, and used the town as a key supply route for men and materials. Over the last few years, Turkey had largely ignored IS activities on the Syrian side of the border. It moved into action only after the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces recaptured Manbij, another town close to the border, from the IS. After taking positions in Manbij, Kurdish rebels had moved towards Jarabulus. If Kurds seize Jarabulus as well, it would allow them unprecedented control over the Syrian-Turkish border region and also cut Turkey off from the last remaining cross-border supply routes. Unsurprisingly, after taking control of Jarabulus, Turkish aircraft and ground troops started attacking Kurdish positions in Manbij, demanding that they retreat to the east of the Euphrates.
Turkey has two concerns. First, if it loses cross-border access to Syria, the Ankara-backed rebels would be in a weaker position in the Syrian civil war, which would in turn jeopardise Turkey’s plans for a future Syria. Second, if Kurdish militias are allowed to further consolidate in the semi-autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, that would pose a direct strategic threat to Turkey, given the Syrian Kurds’ deep ties with their Turkish counterparts who are at war with Ankara. So Turkey wants to rupture the Kurdish momentum. This move, however, marks a dangerous turn of events. Kurds have proved the most effective ground force against the IS. All the major border towns they control, such as Kobane, Tal Abyad and now Manbij, were recaptured from the IS after long and bloody ground battles. In fact, the decline of the IS started with their defeat by Kurds in Kobane. Besides, the Turkish incursion makes the Syrian war more complicated. Given their recent battle history, Kurds won’t give up their position easily. This means that if Turkey persists with its operation, the border towns could witness another spell of war, while making the task of resolving the Syrian conflict more difficult. Unfortunately, Turkey seems less bothered about the chaos in Syria than the growing clout of Kurds.