By Marc DAOU
With international attention focused on the war in Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be in a good geopolitical position to launch a new military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria. Despite US warnings, Erdogan has threatened an offensive on two strategic Syrian towns near Turkey’s southern border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech on the final day of military exercises in Izmir, Turkey on June 9, 2022.© Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Reuters
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again started threatening a new military operation in northern Syria in a bid to create his much-wanted buffer zone along the Turkey-Syria border.
Erdogan’s plan, which he was forced to shelve last year, has resurfaced in recent weeks as Ankara has calculated that the war in Ukraine has turned the geostrategic tide in Turkey’s favour.
"We are meticulously working on new operations to fill the gaps in our security line on our southern borders," Erdogan told lawmakers of his AKP party earlier this month. "We will clean up Tel Rifaat and Manbij," two towns west of the Euphrates River, he said before promising to proceed "step by step” in other regions.
Erdogan’s sights are once again trained at territories controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
Supported and armed by the US military, the YPG formed the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Arab-Kurdish alliance that fought the Islamic State (IS) group in the US-led international coalition against the jihadist group.
Turkey, however, views the YPG and its parent Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as "terrorists". Ankara claims the YPG and the PYD have links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU.
Replacing the Kurds with ‘Arab populations’
"Erdogan's threats against the Kurds should always be taken seriously," warned Fabrice Balanche, a professor at the University of Lyon-II and research associate at the Washington Institute.
Officially, Erdogan’s stated objective is to eliminate the PKK, but in reality, Ankara has the Kurdish presence in northern Syria in its sights.
In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, Syria’s Kurdish minority had a de facto embryonic state in the north and northeast of the country as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad weakened the Damascus regime. In 2016, the Kurds of Syria established the autonomous federal zone of Rojava in areas abandoned by Assad’s forces in what some experts believe was a bid by Damascus to deter the Kurds from joining the ranks of the rebellion.
Ankara, however, rejects the slightest hint of Kurdish autonomy near its borders, perceiving it as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity amid fears that military bases and training camps in Kurdish hands will eventually benefit the PKK. Erdogan therefore wants to create a 480 kilometre-long and 30 kilometre-wide buffer zone between Turkey’s southern border and the Syrian territories east of the Euphrates River.
Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Ankara has displayed “complete opposition” to an autonomous Syrian-Kurdish presence south of its border, said Balanche, and has launched several offensives in the region. “The objective has not changed: to replace the Kurds by Arab populations displaced by the conflict and by local pro-Turkish militias loyal to Ankara’s interests in order to constitute an Arab belt, a sort of anti-Kurdish buffer zone, in northern Syria,” he said.
"Eventually, given that the Turks have already created the Syrian National Army (SNA), which includes Islamist militias and has about 70,000 men, the territories taken from the Kurds could become a self-proclaimed Republic of Northern Syria, like the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” said Balanche.
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974, following a Turkish invasion, between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). While the Republic of Cyprus is an EU member, the TRNC – which was self-proclaimed in 1983 – is recognised only by Ankara and not the rest of the international community.
A ‘winning’ calculation
Since 2016, Erdogan has launched a number of military operations in northern Syria, including a March 2018 offensive that enabled his troops and their Syrian Islamist fighters to seize control of the northern Afrin district. The Kurdish forces that lost Afrin retreated further south to Tel Rifaat.
During Turkey’s last military offensive, in October 2019, Turkish forces targeted the border towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad further east, disconnecting Kurdish-held areas and displacing tens of thousands of people.
The threat of a new offensive comes as international attention is focused on the war in Ukraine, presenting Turkey with a geopolitical opportunity that Erdogan does not want to pass.
"Calculating that this is the right time to go on the offensive again in Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to take advantage of the situation since the West is focused on the war in Ukraine and on Russia, which is at the heart of their concerns,” explained Balanche. “In a way, he is asking the West what is their priority: to thwart the Kremlin's plans in Europe or to support the PKK? Presented like that, his calculation is not a losing one."
In a June 9 speech delivered in the western Turkish province of Izmir on the final day of military exercises, Erdogan stressed that, “We hope none of our true allies will oppose our legitimate concerns".
"Erdogan's calculation could well be a winning one,” said Balanche, noting that the Turks, “with their aerial and technological superiority, managed to drive YPG forces in just three months from Afrin, located in a mountainous stronghold that the Kurds thought they could never lose.”
A year later, Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad were taken in a single month. "The Turks could have even gone further were it not for Russian mediation and a ceasefire," explained Balanche. “If Recep Tayyip Erdogan decides to launch an offensive against Kobane or Manbij, where the population is 85 percent Arab, he could easily manage the same results."
US warnings, Russia’s tacit agreement
By all accounts, it appears that nothing can stop the Turkish president from achieving his goals in northern Syria – despite US warnings.
On June 1, at a joint press conference in Washington with visiting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that, “any escalation there in northern Syria is something that we would oppose, and we support the maintenance of the current ceasefire lines. The concern that we have is that any new offensive would undermine regional stability.”
But Balanche is not sure Washington’s warnings will stop Turkey. “The Americans have protested and will protest even more if Turkey takes action against the Kurds they have promised to protect. But they do not have the means to prevent it," he said.
The Biden administration can place sanctions against Ankara, but Turkey holds too many geostrategic cards, including a veto power on a NATO membership bid by Sweden and Finland.
Like the US, neither the Iranians, nor the Assad regime, nor its Russian sponsors are keen to see the Turks take over parts of Syrian territory.
"The Iranians have set red lines, namely not to touch Shiite areas, nor Aleppo, while Assad’s army is not able to oppose the Turkish military machine,” noted Balanche.
While Russia has said a Turkish operation in northern Syria would be “unwise”, Moscow is not categorically opposed to Erdogan’s plan since the Kurds have refused to return under the Assad regime’s control – and therefore under Russian protection.
And at a time when Russia is facing serious pressure from the West, Moscow is not inclined to sabotage its cordial relations with Turkey, a loose cannon in the NATO fold.
During his visit to Ankara on June 8, Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was very understanding of what he called Turkish "concerns" even as Moscow called on Ankara to “refrain from actions that could lead to a dangerous deterioration” of the situation in Syria.
For their part the Kurds, who were abandoned by Donald Trump in December 2018, once again find themselves with their backs against the wall. "They are quite resigned, and no longer believe in the political project of autonomy. The Turkish offensive of 2019 dampened their hopes, since they saw their Western allies, despite their promises, did nothing to support them,” said Balanche. “They are therefore expecting a new Turkish operation and know that they will not be able to hold out for long and that no one will come to their rescue.”
Erdogan also knows this. Back in August 2019, he warned that "as long as the [YPG-controlled areas] have not disappeared, Turkey will not feel safe”. Three years later, and with a war raging in Ukraine, the Turkish leader appears determined to do what it takes to “feel safe”.
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