TURKEY PREPARES FOR ACTION IN NORTHEAST SYRIA:
Dr. Can Kasapoglu, Director of Security and Defense Research Program, EDAM
- The Turkish military enjoys a robust force generation capacity to decisively launch a blitz into northeast Syria. The topographical conditions are fairly convenient for armored and mechanized formations’ maneuvers. Should Turkey’s ground units receive enough close air-support, the campaign is likely to register swift achievements.
- While Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch utilized the Russian-controlled part of the Syrian airspace, this time, the area of operations would fall under the American controlled airspace, which marks a great difference. In the absence of adequate airpower, the planned advances on the ground can witness major setbacks.
- Although the Turkish Armed Forces enjoy clear warfighting superiority over the PKK / YPG militants, one should not play down the risk of attrition posed by hybrid capabilities, such as anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Nevertheless, geopolitically, Ankara cannot tolerate hundreds of kilometers of PKK-controlled territory at its immediate doorstep.
Military Strategic Assessment
- Turkey has a large concentration of forces along the Syrian border. Since the outset of the conflict, the 2nd Field Army, being responsible for defending the frontier areas with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, have unremittingly received reinforcements. Its elite formations are battle-hardened with vast combat experience.
- The Turkish Army’s 20th Armored Brigade, as the principle maneuver unit, is likely to spearhead the push into northeast Syria. As Ankara recently stepped up its efforts for a cross-border campaign, the 20th Armored has sent detachments to possible lines of departure (where an offensive unit transitions from movement to maneuver) in Akçakale, located in the vicinity of Tel Abyad. The concentration of forces suggests that Tel Abyad would make the primary line of contact, though, Turkish military planners can open-up many other jump-off points along the border at anytime. From Tel Abyad, the offensive would initially advance westwards, following a direction of attack towards the Euphrates River. Turkish press sources reported that the Free Syrian Army* fighters (*practically referring to Turkey-friendly, moderate Syrian Arab and Turkmen armed elements) have geared-up for the campaign. Such a force generation and positioning would enable clear advantages in envelopment efforts. In case Turkey opens up an assault route from the west of the Euphrates, the offensive will probably push into Manbij first. From there, it would advance eastwards to establish a linkup with the Turkish forces in the east, assuming the simultaneous Tel Abyad offensive would be progressing westwards in the meanwhile.
- The topography of northeast Syria remains predominantly lowland. In doctrine, such a landscape offers excellent opportunities for mobile combat and maneuvering functions of armored and mechanized units.
- The PKK / YPG have acquired anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) capabilities in the course of the Syrian War, including MILAN, TOW, and FGM-148 Javelin. Especially the latter looms large as an expensive but very lethal arm with a formidable combat record. Having digested the lessons-learned from Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey has already initiated an active protection system project in cooperation with Ukraine. However, military assessments suggest that active protection systems can easily be overwhelmed if the incoming ATGM threat is accompanied by some decoy projectiles, such as RPG fire. Although Operation Olive Branch presented a better performance compared to Operation Euphrates Shield in terms of armor survivability, Turkish military planners still have to approach the ATGM threat carefully.
- The most critical pillar for the Turkish military planning remains the airpower. At the overture of Operation Olive Branch (Afrin back in 2018), the Turkish Air Force had dispatched 72 aircraft (roughly one-fourth of the fighter and fighter / bomber arsenal) to pound more than 100 targets. The air force has kept a high operational tempo for days at the outset of the campaign, which paid-off greatly for the army units’ progress on the ground.
- Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch took place in the Russia-controlled part of the Syrian airspace. In the political sphere, both campaigns were enabled by the diplomatic rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow. Notably, on February 3rd, 2018, the al-Qaeda linked group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham downed a Russian Su-25 attack aircraft over Idlib by MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) fire. The ejected pilot exchanged fire with the militants, and eventually blew himself up with a hand grenade to avoid being captured. In consequence, the Russian aerospace contingent had temporarily closed the Syrian airspace between February 5th and February 9th, 2018. During the four-day period, the Turkish Air Force could not fly manned aircraft over the Syrian skies, which caused significant setbacks on the battleground, hindering close air-support and air interdiction missions, and reducing fire-support functions into artillery and limited drone activity.
- At the time of writing, the Pentagon’s spokesperson told that the Combined Air Operations Center has removed Turkey from anti-ISIS coalition’s air tasking order, and ceased the Turkish military’s access to the joint surveillance and intelligence data. This move could also lead to a de facto or declaratory closure of the Syrian airspace to the Turkish Air Force. Any setbacks in the use of heavy airpower could bring about serious shortfalls and hardships for ground operations.
- Should the US opts for declaratorily (or effectively) closing northeastern sector of the Syrian airspace to Turkey, Ankara would have two options ahead. First, the Turkish administration can take the risk of escalation and order manned aircraft missions. In such case, the Pentagon would find itself in an even harder situation of deciding between scrambling fighter jets to intercept a NATO ally’s aircraft, which would mark a very venturesome move that can endanger Turkey’s transatlantic ties fundamentally, or allowing its ‘airspace closure ultimatum’ to be inevitably rendered abortive. Second, Ankara can refrain from flying manned aircraft in the Syrian airspace, while boosting unmanned aircraft sorties to avoid any harm to its pilots. Turkey enjoys a growing tactical and MALE (medium-altitude / long-endurance) indigenous armed drone arsenal. These assets are combat-proven and offer excellent solutions in their classes. During Operation Olive Branch, for example, Bayraktar TB-2 UAV scored more than 10 per cent of the direct kills and 17 per cent of target acquisitions. However, Turkey’s current drone inventory has limited payloads, and the larger drone classes (such as the Akinci [the Raider]with a planned combat payload capacity of some 1,5 tons, suitable for delivering heavier munitions) are yet to enter into service. Thus, high sortie rates by drones would not match the firepower that the F-16s and F4 2020s would deliver. On a separate note, the indigenous drone inventory is considered to be a source of national pride for the Turks. Thus, in case the US combat air patrols shoot down a Turkish drone, this could spark a massive reaction in Turkey, especially knowing that the interception was conducted to protect the YPG militants.
- Apart from fixed-wing platforms, the Turkish Armed Forces’ preference with respect to rotary-wing assets will highlight another important parameter for the success of the operation. On the one hand, the Turkish Land Forces and the Gendarmerie enjoy a reliable army-aviation capacity with a large number of T-129 ATAK gunships. Besides, the Sikorsky utility helicopters feature an essential part of the Turkish military’s air mobility operations, while the CH-47F heavy-lift helicopters can serve as reliable logistics and transport platforms. However, throughout the civil war, the PKK / YPG has acquired potent MANPADS capabilities, including the third-generation Russian SA-18, which had already shot down a Turkish Super Cobra attack helicopter before.
- Finally, the scope and depth of the campaign will determine the ‘mission creep’ factor. During the recent UN General Assembly, President Erdogan pointed out to a map for establishing a secure buffer along the northern plains of Syria that encompasses the entire Turkish border area along the west – east axis, albeit with limited depth. However, some detention facilities used for keeping ISIS members remain in deeper northeastern Syrian territory. This gap could urge Ankara to overstretch its operations, bringing about new risks.