President Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to launch a fresh military operation along Turkey’s southern borders has sparked speculation about possible targets, with the Syrian town of Tal Rifaat emerging as a top priority.

The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper reported on Wednesday that preparations had been made for a new operation to expand “safe zones” already established in northern Syria, with multiple goals outlined, just two days after Erdogan unveiled the plan.

Tal Rifaat, Ain al Arab (Kobani), Ain Issa, and Manbij are among the likely targets of Turkish Armed Forces and the (Turkey-backed) Syrian National Army, according to the article.

Control of the towns, which are on or near a central stretch of the 911-kilometer-long border with Syria, might allow Turkey to extend and deepen its military presence from the Mediterranean coast to nearly three-quarters of the border.

There have been minimal indicators of military activity leading up to Turkey’s last four invasions into northern Syria. Erdogan has stated that military activities will be decided during a meeting of the National Security Council on Thursday.

The US-backed YPG controls the prospective target areas, which Ankara sees as an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that has been fighting in southeast Turkey since 1984. Both are designated as terrorist groups in Turkey.

The YPG has been the main target of multiple Turkish operations into northern Syria since 2016, taking hundreds of kilometers of land and advancing 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep into Syria.

“The international coalition, America, and Russia should commit to the guarantees that they made to this region,” YPG spokesman Nuri Mahmoud told Reuters, adding that the group took Erdogan’s threats very seriously. Their presence in our areas must be significant in terms of halting the onslaught on our people.”

The most important target of the latest operation, according to the Yeni Safak newspaper, will be Tal Rifaat, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Turkish border, which Kurdish fighters used as a base to launch attacks in the Afrin, Azaz, and Jarablus areas controlled by Turkey and Ankara-backed Syrian fighters.

Tal Rifaat is a small town north of Aleppo and south of Azaz. A single operation there would not expand Turkey’s “safe zones” along the border, but it would push its forces closer into Syria.

The International Crisis Group’s Dareen Khalifa, a Syria analyst, said it was unclear whether Erdogan was referring to an operation in Tal Rifaat or further east, but she emphasized the town’s importance.

“If anything, Tal Rifaat can get him what he wants without causing him a major hassle.” “I don’t think Tal Rifaat is important to the Americans,” she remarked.

The majority of US forces in northern Syria are stationed to the east.

She claimed that Russia, which has soldiers in the region, had ignored his worries about militant strikes from Tal Rifaat on Turkish-controlled territories, and that Erdogan has been urging for years that Tal Rifaat must be seized.

Kobani, a primarily Kurdish town, was mentioned as a possible target. In 2015, the YPG’s victory over Daesh terrorists helped turn the tide against the group.

“Kobani symbolizes the worth of a global triumph in the fight against terrorism,” said Mahmoud, a YPG spokesman. “There is no question in my mind that our forces will do all possible to defend” the area.

The People’s Defense Units (YPG) are a crucial component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the alliance on which the US has depended heavily in the fight against Islamic State.

However, Khalifa downplayed the possibility of Turkey attacking Kobani.

“I don’t think there’s any appetite in staying in Kobani,” she said, citing the significant demographic shifts and reactions that would occur if the Kurdish majority evacuated.

While US forces were not physically present in Manbij, she said it was a US zone of influence, so “I expect it will also prompt a US reaction.”

Any strike on Kobani risks inciting a significant response from Turkey’s Kurds, who make up over 20% of the country’s population. In Turkey, the Islamic State’s raid on Kobani in 2014 sparked protests that resulted in dozens of deaths.

Erdogan’s intentions for further military operations, according to Mithat Sancar, joint head of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), will have serious implications.

He urged HDP lawmakers, “We must all see that this would lead to a terrible vortex in this region and country again.”
Erdogan’s threat of a military operation has heightened the stakes in Turkey’s dispute with NATO allies Finland and Sweden over the latter’s membership, with Turkey accusing both of harboring PKK sympathizers.

Analysts believe the preparations reflect his conviction that the West would not oppose such operations if it needed Ankara’s assistance for the Nordic nations’ NATO membership bid.

Analysts believe Erdogan’s declaration was also made to strengthen nationalist support as he prepares for challenging elections next year. In the past, cross-border military actions have bolstered his poll ratings.


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