Publications of experts CACDS - Southern Caucasus

Benyamin Poghosyan: "Turkey's incursion into Syria: What lessons Armenia should take"


The eight and a half years of Syrian conflict saw different, sometimes very strange ups and downs. Everything started as an uprising against the authoritarian state with demands for democratic reforms. Later the situation was transformed into civil war with growing influenza of foreign fighters. 2014 Islamic State entered stage making President Assad less evil for the West. Then Russia intervened militarily and changed the course of war effectively saving Assad. In 2016 and 2018 Turkey launches two military operations taking control of Northwestern Syria. However, after eight years of conflict and suffering, the situation was stabilized with four clear zones of influenza. Approximately 70 percent of the country is under government control with tangible Iranian and Russian support, 20 percent was under control of Syrian Democratic Forces led by Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters (whom Turkey perceives as terrorists) supported by the US, and the remaining 10 percent was divided between Turkey, Turkey supported rebels and some remnants of different radical Islamist groups.

Thus, conventional wisdom was telling that Syria had entered the phase of low intensity conflict with no major changes possible on the ground. Then, at the beginning of October the situation changed dramatically. The US, after negotiations with Turkey, stated that it would withdraw its forces from Northeastern Syria and would not prevent Turkey's incursion. Only days after that deal Turkey has launched its military operation against SDF forces seeking to establish a security zone along the 480 km part of the Syrian - Turkey border. Kurdish forces accused Americans of betrayal and made a quick deal with Government forces forcing them to enter the SDF controlled territories. The US is preparing to impose sanctions on Turkey for allegedly crossing some red lines and European states are blaming Turkey and demanding to stop the operation.

We may only guess what the key reason for this unraveling geopolitical drama was. Some argue that President Trump simply wants to fulfill his campaign to promote endless wars and bring American troops home, others believe the US master plan was to create tensions between Turkey, Russia and Iran and undermine the Astana process, but most importantly to drove a wedge in Ankara - Moscow relations and made Moscow bogged down deeper into the Syrian crisis. Another group of pundits are arguing that the situation is more favorable to Russia as it is the only power who has partner relations with Turkey, Iran, President Assad and also connections with Syrian Kurds and after the US withdrawal from Northeastern Syria is the only power broker who may exploit differences between different partners to secure its vital interests.

As for Turkey, Ankara continues to expand its de facto control in Northern Syria. Given the fact that starting from the establishment of the Turkish Republic of Ankara was incredibly happy with its borders with Syria and Iraq and there are clear tendencies within President Erdogan's inner circle to revive the glory of the Ottoman Empire, military incursions into Syria may well serve the long Turkey's term strategic goal to establish its de facto control over the northern parts of Syria.

Regardless of the true reasons for the recent mess in Northeastern Syria, some estimates may have been made that could be useful also for Armenia in its short and mid term strategic calculus. The key is the fact that you should never overestimate the hard security guarantees provided by your allies and should seek to maintain a minimum level of power balance with your adversary.

If it's not possible, like in the case of Syrian Kurds vis-a-vis Turkey, you should have multiple guarantors not be put under the direct threat of physical extermination.

Projecting this situation to the South Caucasus, Armenia should always keep the minimum necessary level of balance of power with Azerbaijan to be able to rebuke any large scale offensive without any external support. As for Turkey, it is better to have multiple guarantees and not to rely solely on the Russian military base and the CSTO agreement, which effectively is a Russian guarantee too. If this is not possible, you should do everything you could to not jeopardize or ruin your relations with Russia.

Another key conclusion to be drawn from the current situation in Syria is the volatility of any agreements and regional security architecture mechanisms. Even the most solid security architecture can be ruined very quickly and Armenia should be ready for such catastrophic scenarios. The stable alliances can be undermined and new alliances can be established. Thus, Armenia should monitor the regional security dynamics very carefully and develop robust state capacities for strategic forecasting.

Another key lesson that Armenia should take is the necessity to clearly differentiate between vital and non vital interests. Syrian Kurds' vital interest was the provision of population security while establishing Kurdish autonomy in Syria resembling the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq was an important but not vital one. In recent months, Russia has been offering Kurds to launch negotiations with the President's Assad government and let government troops enter Kurdish controlled areas as a guarantee of physical security of the population against possible Turkish attacks. However, this was rejected as a step undermining the prospects of Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Meanwhile, after Turkey's incursion, Syrian Kurds had to negotiate with President Assad in much worse conditions and eventually came to the decision offered by Russia before the resumption of hostilities.

As for Armenia, Yerevan should differentiate its vital and non vital interests too. The vital interest for Armenia is the protection of territorial integrity and physical security of the population of the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Any changes in the territorial integrity of either Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh Republic will put the physical security of both Karabakh and Armenia populations at risk. Thus, any strategic decision regarding Armenian foreign policy, its relations with significant players involved in regional geopolitics must be taken with one key goal - to secure the territorial integrity of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Armenia should construct its relations with foreign powers on a clear understanding of who may support this goal, who may have a neutral position and who is prone to undermine it. Thus, recent developments in Northeastern Syria once more that small states located in geopolitically volatile regions should calculate the impact of their foreign policy decisions are not carefully captured by strategic surprise.


Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies