The series of proxy wars going on in Syria got a bit more complicated last week when Turkish troops rolled over the border to tackle what Ankara is calling terrorists: both ISIS and Kurdish groups. Turkey has suffered a wave of suicide bombings in the past few months, almost certainly carried out by ISIS or groups affiliate to their cause, and so have some justification in going after them in their strongholds. But it’s also likely that Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will use this as an excuse to deploy proper military units against their old foes the Kurds in their homelands, something which they could not have done previously without provoking an international outcry.
With the men and material at the Turks’ disposal, I expect they will prevail against the Kurds to begin with. But the Turkish army has already taken its first casualties, and the longer they stay in Syria, the deeper they penetrate, and the longer their supply lines become the more likely they will be to incur more. The Turkish military was stripped of much of its leadership in 2010 following the foiling of the alleged “Operation Sledgehammer” coup plot, and then last month subject to sweeping purges in the aftermath of the more recently bungled coup. A military which has had its officer and NCO cadres purged for political reasons and replaced with loyalists tends to lose a lot of its effectiveness, and the degree to which this happens is dependent on how many key, competent personnel have been replaced by idiots. The Turkish army hasn’t done any proper fighting in generations and few of its personnel will have seen real combat. They are going up against Kurdish forces who have been doing nothing but fight for years, and unless they finish the job quickly they might find them a tough nut to crack. The most viable Kurdish strategy would be to drag this out as long as possible, practice hit-and-run tactics on vulnerable Turkish supply lines and rear echelon units, and turn it into the sort of guerrilla war which has done so much damage to American units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years. But crucial to the Kurds’ success is to secure the backing of a larger power to keep them supplied with weapons, ammunition, medical equipment, and funds. I suspect a major reason for Ergodan’s decision to kiss and make up with Putin over the downing of the Russian plane in November 2015 is to prevent Russia from fulfilling this role. It will now be interesting to see who does back the Kurds (if anyone) and how Turkey’s newly purged military performs.