Turkey could be eyeing new Syria operation to distract from pandemic, expert says

The Turkish government may target oil assets in eastern Syria in a bid to divert attention away from the coronavirus pandemic spreading in the country, an analyst wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

“Turkey’s leadership thrives on crises,” Middle East affairs commentator Seth Frantzman said. “Even as the pandemic spreads, Turkey’s media wants to remind viewers that it is fighting ‘terrorists’ in eastern Syria.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on March 9 that Syrian oil revenues should be used to rebuild the war-torn country, raising concerns for U.S.-backed Kurdish forces operating in Syria's energy-rich Hasakah and Deir al-Zor provinces.

Turkey launched a military operation against the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its affiliates last October, after the United States pulled most of its forces out of Syria. A small U.S. contingent was left behind to help the Kurds defend oil reserves in the east of the country captured in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Russia and Turkey both want the United States out of eastern Syria, Frantzman wrote.

“Russia may see an opportunity to press the U.S. to leave more of eastern Syria, and Russia may think it can come to some kind of deal of trading Idlib to the Syrian regime in return for oil revenues to Turkey,” he said.

Turkey’s support of the anti-Damascus factions in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province has placed it at odds with Moscow-backed Syrian government forces.

Ankara allowed the pro-government forces to rout groups independent from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army to ally with Turkey in return for protection, building the proxy necessary to carry out an operation in eastern Syria, Frantzman wrote.

After the Feb. 27 air strike that killed 36 Turkish soldiers, Turkey turned to Moscow to secure a deal to remove U.S. influence and what little backing Kurdish forces have in Syria, he wrote.

“Turkey now wants to ‘revive Syria’, apparently to help keep Russian-backed Assad regime in power, despite Turkey’s past statements critiquing [Syrian President Bashar] Assad,” the analyst said.