Seizing on a quick military victory to boost declining poll ratings is a practice time-honoured enough to almost call it a tradition. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an experienced practitioner of this art and has laid the groundwork for an offensive against Kurdish forces in response to the Istanbul bombing on November 13th. It is unclear if occupying another chunk of Northern Syria will make Turkey substantially safer. Yet the domestic optics make sense: Mr Erdogan is just months away from an election, with inflation soaring to 85% and the opposition on a joint ticket. That his opponents rely on Kurdish support makes a rally-around-the-flag moment a perfect means to strengthen Mr Erdogan’s political position. It is not without reason that prior interventions by the Turkish military into Syria since 2016 have typically coincided with the run-up to elections.
Yet whilst an escalation limited to prolonged air and artillery strikes remains a possibility any ground offensive is unlikely to take the form of a short victorious intervention. Turkish objectives are expected to centre around the establishment of 30km “safe zone” along the entirety of its southern border removing the presence of the de facto independent Kurdish state. This increased ambition from the narrower objectives of prior incursions is likely the result of Ankara sensing a power vacuum within Syria posed by Russia’s prioritisation of its struggle in Ukraine, an Iran distracted by protests at home, and a US willing to overlook a NATO ally’s excesses.
Seizing this window of opportunity may allow for the long-standing goal of reducing Kurdish power in Syria and will likely help Mr Erdogan’s polling figures given the evidence of previous interventions. Whilst the US-trained Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces estimated at 100,000 troops will present fierce resistance, the Turkish military, NATO’s second largest, will likely achieve its stated objectives. Yet any offensive will mark a further commitment of blood and treasure for a foreign adventure, already estimated to cost $2bn annually, with no endgame in sight.