Earlier this week, following a cabinet meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that the country is planning to launch a new military operation in Syria. According to President Erdogan, the operation will expand “safe zones” set up in northern Syria along its border with the country. Subsequently, the US warned Turkey against launching the operation as it would put US troops at risk.
“We will soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30 kms deep safe zone we established along our southern border,” said the Turkish president. No further details were provided except that the operation would begin after Turkey’s military completes its preparations. This has raised concerns about the conflict at the Turkey-Syria border.
According to Turkey’s pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, “Among the probable targets of the Turkish Armed forces and the (Turkey-backed) Syrian National Army, are Tal Rifaat, Ain al Arab (Kobani), Ain Issa and Manbij.” These potential targets are reportedly being controlled by US-backed group People’s Defense Units (YPG).
However, Ankara views YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group which has been responsible for the insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. Turkey has designated both groups as terrorist organisations. Notably, the country’s NATO allies view only the PKK as a terrorist group, not the YPG.
“The international coalition, America, and Russia should commit to the pledges that they made to this region. Their presence in our areas must be meaningful, in the sense that it stops the repeated attacks on our people,” said YPG spokesperson Nuri Mohmoud. The group takes President Erdogan’s threats seriously as they have been the main target of several operations carried out by Turkey in northern Syria since 2016. Ankara has already seized up to hundreds of kilometres of land and pushed some 30 kms (20 miles) deep into the country.
Additionally, the YPG spokesperson said, “Kobani represents the value of a global victory in the war against terrorism… There’s no doubt that our forces will do what is needed to defend (it).” The YPG are a key part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the coalition that the US relies on to fight the Islamic State.
This has led to the US raising concerns over Turkey’s plans. “We are deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria, and in particular, its impact on the civilian population there,” said Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson. He added, “We condemn any escalation. We support maintenance of the current cease-fire lines.”
Previously, human rights groups have also criticised Turkey’s past military operations in the northern region of Syria, which led to thousands being displaced during the last incursion. Additionally, in 2020, the United Nations urged Turkey to investigate some of the “possible war crimes” by the armed groups in the areas which were under their control.
Since 2016, the Turkish forces have launched three major incursions in northern Syria and have taken control along the borders to secure its threat from the ISIL and the YPG. The SDF, responding to President Erdogan’s remarks, has said there has been no “strategic change” in northern Syria, and that Ankara was trying to “undermine stability” in the region.
Ned Price pointed out that the US expects Turkey to abide by the October 2019 joint statement, which includes halting offensive operations in northeast Syria. “We recognise Turkey’s legitimate security concerns on Turkey’s southern border, but any new offensive would further undermine regional stability and put at risk US forces and the coalition’s campaign against ISIS,” said Price, on Tuesday. Reportedly, most US troops are present in northern Syria, with more personnel stationed towards the east.
This comes after the Turkish president opposed Sweden and Finland’s proposed membership in NATO. The countries have recently sought membership in the western alliance, in the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, Turkey has alleged that the two countries are supporting what they deem as “terrorist groups”, like the PKK.
Notably, Sweden and Finland, along with some other European countries have imposed restrictions on military sales to Ankara following the incursion into Syria in 2019, which was criticised by Turkey. However, the two countries are planning high-level talks with Turkey to ease its concerns regarding their possible NATO membership.