Convergence and Divergence of Actors in Turkey’s Military Offensive in Northern Syria

Document Type : Research Paper


Assistant Professor, the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, Tehran, Iran


One of the most important problems of the last decade in the international arena has been the protracted Syrian crisis, which has involved a multitude of extra-regional, regional and domestic actors. In February 2019, the Resistance Coalition defeated ISIS, and paved the way for Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria with the stated objective of countering the security threat of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU. The Turkish offensives have been carried out in three phases in the form of three operations (i.e., the Euphrates Shield, the Olive Branch, and the Spring of Peace). In the third phase of Turkey's massive invasion of northern Syria which was referred to as Spring of Peace in September 2019, Turkey's ruling party leaders sought to implement a plan to establish a 32-km-wide and 480-km-long safe zone on Syrian soil along the Turkish border. Turkey's offensives and military presence in northern Syria, especially after the start of the Spring of Peace, created new ambiguities and complications in the Syrian crisis situation. The multiplicity of actors, who are pursuing their habitually discordant goals in Syria, made it very difficult to provide an accurate analysis of the situation in the aftermath of Turkey’s multiple military operations in northern Syria. This complexity is better recognized when the extra-regional, regional, and domestic actors involved in Syria are classified on the basis of their worldviews and foreign policy objectives. At the international level of analysis, Turkey's military operations in  northern Syria provoked a rivalry between the great powers (the United States, China, and Russia) along the lines of the theory of hegemonic transformation. At the regional level of analysis, Turkey's direct military involvement and deployment of troops to Syrian territory disrupted the balance of threat created by the leaders of countries in the region that have historically regulated their relations on the idea of comprehensive balance which has in turn been influenced by the actors' threat perception of offensive power and aggressive intentions of their rivals. At the domestic level, the calculations of takfiri terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or Daesh), Al-Nusra Front, as well as Kurdish separatist terrorist groups such as PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD) changed in proportion to their power position and the actions of the more influential actors at the higher levels.
The main purpose of the present study is to answer the following research question:  What are the convergences and divergences between the multitude of actors influenced by the Turkish cross-border offensive mission and military presence in northern Syria? In the research hypothesis, it is argued that Turkey's military presence in northern Syria has created threats and opportunities for Iran, which must determine its policies based on its national interests by understanding  the convergences and divergences of the interests of other key actors at various extra-regional, regional, national and subnational levels. A score of actors are involved in this conflict as either the supporters of the Assad regime or the backers of the Syrian opposition by providing considerable assistance in the form of arms, training, financing, political support, and even military personnel in order to achieve their contradictory goals. The author used the method of structural analysis of the actors involved in the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, and the “Matrix of Alliances and Conflicts: Tactics, Objectives, and Recommendations” (MACTOR) software in order to identify and analyze the strategies of the major actors. Data collection techniques in this study included: First, qualitative secondary data were obtained from government reports, newspapers, and previous scholarly articles assessing different aspects of the situation. Second, An expert interview was conducted to explore diverse perspectives of fifteen professionals with considerable knowledge of strategic issues in West Asia. To form the panel of experts on interaction matrices in this study, a purposive sampling technique is used to select the experts with extensive experience and/or academic research on the Syrian crisis. Based on the study's findings, the actors involved in the Turkish offensive into northern Syria were classified into six groups based on the degree of influence and vulnerability: 1. Determinant actors with powerful influence and low  vulnerability consists of the United States, Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, PKK, and the Lebanese Hezbollah; 2. Crucial actors with powerful influence and high vulnerability include Turkey, the European Union, Israel, the PYD, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE; 3. Aim actors with lesser influence than that of crucial actors, and with high vulnerability include Syria, Iraq, and Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD).; 4. Regulatory actors with less influence and vulnerability than crucial actors include the People's Democratic Party of Turkey (HDP), Turkish-backed Takfiris, the Iraqi regional government, and Turkish nationalists; 5. Result actors with very low influence and very high vulnerability include refugees from Syria, the Arab tribes in the conflict zone, and the Syrian Alawites; and 6. Autonomic actors with the lowest degree of influence and vulnerability; and thus were not considered in this study because of their insignificant impact and relevance. The crucial, aim, and regulatory actors have a top position in Iran’s assessment of this foreign policy issue since they can have positive or negative impacts on Iran’s efforts to uphold its regional power status.
The findings of the study show that  three polarizations of the actors can be distinguished in the crisis situation created by Turkey's offensives and military presence in northern Syria: 1. The actors in the first pole includes Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq, Russia, the Syrian government, and the Syrian Alawites. 2. The second pole of actors consists of Turkey, Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, Turkish-backed Takfiris, Turkish nationalists, the Free Syrian Army, Syrian war refugees, the Syrian Kurdish Patriotic Council, and Arab tribes in the conflict zone. 3. The third pole of actors includes the United States, Israel, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, QSD, Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, the HDP, the PKK and its Syrian branch. The wide-ranging characteristics of the actors in the third cluster indicate the fragmentation in this category. The gap between PKK-PYD and the other actors indicates the tactical convergence as well as the extent of variation in multiple (and often conflicting) goals pursued by the actors in this category.
Analysis of the divergence of actors also showed that Turkey, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the PKK terrorist group have the greatest divergence of goals regarding Turkey's military operations in northern Syria. Turkey and Iran are in a state of loneliness, but Russia is closer to Iran and the Resistance Coalition due to its views on security threats posed by the U.S. To overcome its loneliness, the Turkish government has the option of moving closer to the U.S. and its partners, but this move might lead to the empowerment of pro-Kurdistan Kurdish movements. Its other option is to get closer to the Resistance Coalition, but it must inevitably redefine its foreign policy objectives and behaviors according to the discourse of this Coalition.


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