Syrians inspect the aftermath of a Turkish missile attack on Azaz, northern Syria (AFP/Getty Images)

The Indicators and Consequences of the Turkish Military Operation In North Syria and Iraq


Wed, 14-12-2022 07:46 PM, Aden

Dr. Eman Zahran (South24) 

The current regional and international contexts have contributed in Ankara’s return to its foreign moves about establishing “a security belt from west to east” along its southern borders with Syria and Iraq. This was tested by Turkey’s bet on Operation Claw-Sword to complete previously-declared goals through successive military moves between 2016- 2020. These goals include closing the geographical gaps between its areas of influence. By launching the current operation, Turkey declared a number of goals based on several axes, foremost of which are Ayn al-Arab (Kobani), Tall Rifat, and Manbij in Aleppo. This pushes us to ask about the motives of the military operation in north Syria and the scale of the regional and international moves that support the Turkish step in addition to prospects and future consequences.

Turkish motives

On November 20th 2022, the Turkish forces launched an air operation in the north of Iraq and Syria. It called it Operation Claw-Sword. There have been variable political and security visions about the motives of the Turkish military operation especially that the temporal context goes in line with the regional and international interactions as well as the whole internal Turkish interactions inside. They include the following motives:

- Internal motives: There are a number of internal motives which pushed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to launch the operation. The most prominent of which include responding to the Taksim Square bombings in Istanbul [1] on November 13th. The military operation in the north of Syria and Iraq was promoted as being part of defending national security and countering the Kurdish threat. This came after Turkey blamed The Kurdistan Workers Party and the Syrian Democratic Forces for the attack that hit the depth of Istanbul. The second motive is enhancing the popularity of the Justice and Development Party as the behavior of the Turkish foreign policy currently can't be separated from the local changes related to the elections over the next 6 months which constitute a real test for Erdogan and his Party after their popularity has largely declined. The Kurdish issue serves as one of the most prominent barter cards in the local internal scene.

- Geopolitical goals: This affects Ankara’s plans to establish "a safe zone in north Syria" to serve as a geopolitical barrier between the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces. This pushed Erdogan to make a number of military operations in north Syria, the first of which was The Euphrates Shield in 2017. The second one was Operation Olive Branch in 2018. The third one was Operation Peace Spring in 2019. The Fourth one "Operation Claw-Sword" aims to complete this geopolitical approach. In 2020, Turkey launched Operation "Spring Shield" against the Syrian regime in response to the latter's targeting of Turkish soldiers in Idlib.

Supportive contexts

Ankara extracted a flexible acceptance or at least non-explicit opposition from Russia and the United States. Moreover, the Iranian regime turned a blind eye to the Turkish operation. This is known as “balance of interests”. This hypothesis was based upon a number of contexts that supported the Turkish moves in north Syria and Iraq, foremost of which are:

Washington's contexts: There are a number of contexts that pushed the White House to adopt a flexible approach towards the Turkish operation in north Syria and Iraq. The First one is related to enhancing NATO’s expansion policies in the eastern wing of the European bloc, especially by completing the procedures related to Finland and Sweden's accession to the alliance. [2] This requires an approval from the Turkish parliament to achieve this approach. The second one is that the US is busy in providing energy to its European allies as well as watching the developments of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war and the political settlement paths. The third one is that the US Democratic administration adopts the “safe exit” approach towards the Middle East. Its cooperation is limited to counterterrorism by engaging with the International Coalition to besiege and eliminate this phenomenon. 

Moscow’s contexts: There are a number of Russian determinants that pushed Moscow not to explicitly oppose the Turkish moves in north Syria and Iraq. The first prominent one is Moscow’s involvement in the ongoing Ukrainian war. The second one is Moscow's exhaustion by successive European and US sanction packages and their direct impact which has led to a fragile growth of the Russian economy. The third determinant is that Russia withdrew many of its ground and air forces from the Syrian territories to use them in Ukraine. The fourth one is represented in Moscow’s desire to “balance interests'' with the Turkish side to achieve its agendas in the Ukrainian crisis file such as the Russian-Turkish cooperation to reach the Grain Export Agreement. [3]

Tehran’s contexts: They are represented in the Iranian government’s preoccupation with a number of top-priority files. The first one is the internal protests in Iran amid a decline of the Iranian regime’s popularity. This pushes Iran to turn a blind eye towards what happens in the countries with geographical expansion according to its twentieth document "Iran 2025". The second one is that targeting the Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Iraqi Kurdistan is in favor of Ankara which uses this to push Tehran not to oppose the Turkish military operation. 

Possible consequence

There are a number of possible political and security consequences as a result of Operation Claw-Sword whose impact may exceed the Syrian territories to the regional depth. This includes the following points:

- Re-producing ISIS: This hypothesis is based upon what was officially declared by the Syrian Democratic Forces following the Turkish strikes as it announced the suspension of its operations with the International Coalition against ISIS. [4] This could undermine the joint counterterrorism operation between the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Turkish moves may lead to the escape of terrorist elements from the detention camps which may be targeted. Those ISIS elements may head towards other areas with “turbulent” nature such as Central and West African countries which became a frontage to restore the terrorism entities by exploiting the internal troubled political conditions and the fragility of their security systems.

- The increase of the “security vacuum” possibilities: The Turkish military strikes in north Syria may push the Syrian Democratic Forces to reduce their forces guarding the prisons and camps in which the ISIS elements have been detained. [5] Furthermore, these forces will prioritize directing their operations towards responding to the Turkish strikes rather than against ISIS cells. This may create a security vacuum which will provide an appropriate environment for ISIS to enhance its ranks, regroup its scattered elements and escalate its attacks, whether inside Syria or outside it. On the other hand, Turkey may support the “Syrian National Forces” in return for the retreat of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This may result in some ramifications, foremost of which is the continuous illegal practices by the Syrian National Forces such as forced displacement in addition to their affiliation with the Turkish agenda without having a national political program like the Syrian Democratic Forces. [6] Additionally, the fragility of its forces and the lack of a unified central leadership risk creating a security vacuum. 

- The decline of the political settlement opportunity: The Turkish moves in north Syria represented in Operation Claw-Sword hit the outputs of the “Astana Talks” which included Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian national forces. The current military operation violates the Turkish pledges about the importance of preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian state, and confronting separatist agendas that support undermining Syrian unity and threatening the security of neighboring countries in the region. This may weaken the chances of holding any future talks to achieve the requirements of a political settlement of the Syrian issue. 

- Redrawing the “demographic maps”: This is related to Ankara’s continuous policies towards the Turkification of the areas under its control in north Syria and linking them to the Turkish institutions. [7] For example, various educational institutions at all levels were opened with an aim to teach the Turkish curricula. Moreover, Turkey imposes Turkish Lira to replace the Syrian national currency in the areas under its control in north Syria. This is in addition to a number of political and structural reforms to make an administrative and strategic link between north Syria and Turkey. Thus, it paves the way to use this as a supportive card during the upcoming elections amid the popularity decline of Erdogan’s and his party.

- Creating a “new space” for the US-Russia competition: This hypothesis is related to the Russian-American military presence in north Syria and the involvement of both countries in the Ukrainian war which has direct impact at all political, security, economic and commercial levels. This may weaken and consume both forces and one of them. This depends on the maps of engaging with the Turkish forces and the local parties inside Syria. This accordingly may impact the future of possible negotiations between Moscow and the Western forces about the whole disputable issues, foremost of which is the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis. 

Accordingly and given the whole Turkish goals from Operation Claw-Sword which are in line with the current regional and international contexts, the most likely scenario is the “limited operation” in the areas adjacent to west of the Euphrates. This is related to the foggy reactions of the Syrian file’s actors in a way that threatens change in the announced flexible formulas. Additionally, Turkey wants to avoid a direct clash with the Russian-American presence east of the Euphrates to maintain its vital interests, whether inside or in the regional surroundings as well as positioning itself within the European circle through the European Union. It stands at the same distance from Russia and the Western bloc including the US.

Dr. Eman Zahran

Egyptian researcher, specializing in international relations and regional security


1- Taksim Explosion: 6 Reasons behind Targeting the "vital core of Istanbul", November 13th 2022, Sky New Arabia

2- Iman Zahran,the Impact of NATO’s Expansion on the Security Arrangements of the European Bloc. May 22nd 2022,

3- Amid international welcome..the Grain Export Agreement is prolonged for additional 4 months, November 17th 2022, France24

4- Mona Qeshta, Fueling the Risks.. Will the Turkish Military Operation in North Syria Escalate ISIS Activities? November 29th 2022, Al-Marsad Al-Masry

5- The previous source

6- Navvar Saban , The Past, Present, and Future of the Syrian National Army, Al Sharq Strategic Research, 31 August 2021 ,

7- Ahmed Mohammed Fahmy. The Consequences of The Turkish Threat of Launching a Ground Operation in north Syria. December 5th 2022, Shaf Center For Future Studies and Crisis Analysis.

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