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Turkey’s Endgame in Syria

What Erdogan Wants

A Turkish military convoy near the Turkish-Syrian border, October 2019 Mehmet Ali Dag/ Ihlas News Agency / Reuters

In a stunning announcement on Sunday, the Trump administration gave the nod to a Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria, an operation that would entail clashes with Washington’s Kurdish allies in the area. The U.S. military, which has around 1,000 troops in Syria, would not “support or be involved in the operation.” But the White House said it would pull back U.S. forces stationed near the Syrian-Turkish border to clear the way for Ankara’s troops.

Facing an intense backlash even among Republicans, Trump seemed to backpedal on Monday. But Turkish army units stand ready at the Syrian border, and Washington’s exhortations are unlikely to keep Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from giving them the green light. This is because Turkey’s strategy is more than an exercise in geopolitics—for Erdogan, the war touches on his very political survival.

In fact, Turkey’s Syria policy has for years turned on Erdogan’s ambition to consolidate his one-man rule at home. Turkey supported Islamist insurgents against Damascus when doing so strengthened Erdogan’s religious credentials at home. After flagging electoral support forced Erdogan to partner with an anti-Kurdish opposition party, his attention shifted to fighting the Kurdish forces operating in Syria. That goal remains today, but it is slowly being overshadowed by an even more pressing concern: getting rid of the millions of Syrian refugees who have made their way to Turkey over the years, where they have now become a burden on Erdogan. That a major military incursion will solve these problems is far from guaranteed. But Erdogan is determined to try.  

ALL POLITICS IS TURKISH

Turkey’s playbook in Syria has changed dramatically since civil war broke out in 2011. Erdogan was flying high at home that spring, when people first took to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The secularist opposition was in a slump, and Erdogan was set to embark on a program to Islamize the country’s education system. The conflict

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