Residents in northern Syria are prepared for a new battle. While the world’s attention is focused on the conflict in Ukraine, Turkey’s president says he’s planning a big military operation to push Syrian Kurdish militants back and establish a long-desired buffer zone along the border.
Tensions are running high. Almost every day brings another round of gunfire and shelling between US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters and Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian rebel terrorists.
According to analysts, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the conflict in Ukraine to advance his own agenda in nearby Syria, even using Turkey’s NATO veto power to prevent Finland and Sweden from joining the alliance.
However, a large incursion by Ankara would be fraught with dangers and problems, potentially jeopardizing Turkey’s relations with both the US and Russia.
It also runs the risk of causing a new wave of displacement in a war-torn territory where Daesh still operates in the shadows.
Here’s a look at the current scenario and some of the major issues:
Erdogan announced last month that Turkey would restart efforts to build a 30-kilometer deep buffer zone along Syria’s southern border by conducting a cross-border assault against US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters. Erdogan hoped to establish that zone in 2019, but a military operation fell short.
“One night, we’ll swoop down on them.” And we must,” Erdogan stated, without specifying a time frame.
Turkey has undertaken three major operations inside Syria since 2016, all of which have targeted Syria’s main Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey regards as a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For decades, the PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish government in Ankara.
The YPG, on the other hand, is the backbone of US-led troops fighting Daesh insurgents and has shown to be a reliable US ally in Syria.
Turkey already controls a major portion of Syrian land, including the cities of Afrin, Tel Abyad, and Jarablus, thanks to three previous military operations in Syria. Ankara intends to construct tens of thousands of dwelling units in certain areas in order to assure the “voluntary return” of 1 million of Turkey’s 3.7 million Syrian refugees.
Erdogan stated on Wednesday that Turkish troops are now aiming to conquer new places, including Tel Rifaat and Manbij, which are located near a significant crossroads of routes on Syria’s M4 motorway. Turkey claims Syrian Kurdish fighters use Tel Rifaat as a base from which they assault areas controlled by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters.
Turkish troops may possibly invade the crucial border town of Kobani, where the US military and Kurdish fighters first joined forces to destroy IS in 2015. For Syrian Kurds and their hopes for self-rule in this region of Syria, the town is a powerful symbol.
According to analysts, Erdogan is likely to see a nexus of foreign and local factors that make an intervention in Syria timely. The Russians are distracted with the conflict in Ukraine, and the United States needs Erdogan to abandon his opposition to NATO’s expansion to encompass Finland and Sweden.
“They (the Turks) see a chance to gain concessions from the West,” said Aaron Stein, research director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
An offensive in Syria may also be used to galvanize Turkish nationalist voters at a time when their economy is deteriorating and inflation is at 73.5 percent. Turkey will hold presidential and legislative elections next year, and earlier excursions into Syria to expel the YPG have bolstered Erdogan’s support in prior polls.
There are currently no signals of mobilization indicating an impending invasion, though the Turkish military might be called upon at any time. Syrian Kurdish fighters, on the other hand, claim they are concerned about Turkey’s recent threat and have been preparing for an attack.
They warn that an assault would jeopardize their ongoing struggle against Daesh as well as their capacity to defend prisons in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of extremists, many of them foreign nationals, have been imprisoned since Daesh was destroyed territorially three years ago.
A large-scale military campaign is fraught with dangers and is likely to enrage both the United States and Russia, both of which have military bases in northern Syria.
Although Turkey and Russia back opposing parties in Syria’s 11-year conflict, they have worked closely together in the country’s north. While Russia has not issued an official statement, Syrian opposition activists claim that Russia has recently dispatched fighter jets and helicopter gunships to a facility near the Turkish border.
Russia’s intervention in Syria, as one of Damascus’ closest friends, has been crucial in turning the tide of the crisis in Syria, which began amid Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Syrian opposition fighters have been confined to a northwest pocket and Turkey’s sphere of influence.
However, with Moscow’s attention focused on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to stand in Erdogan’s way over what is essentially a sliver of land along Turkey’s southern border.