As Ukraine crisis rages, Erdogan targets Kurdish northern Syria

While international attention is focused on the war in Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems 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 has once again started threatening another military operation in northern Syria in a bid to create his much-wanted buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Erdogan‘s plan, which he was forced to abandon last year, resurfaced in recent weeks as Ankara calculated that the war in Ukraine had turned the geostrategic tide in favor of Turkey.

“We are working meticulously on new operations to close the gaps in our security line at our southern borders,” Erdogan told lawmakers from his AKP party earlier this month. “We are going to clean up Tel Rifaat and Manbij”, two towns west of the Euphrates, he said before promising to proceed “step by step” in other regions.

Erdogan’s eyes are again trained on the territories controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Backed 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 as part of the US-led international coalition. United 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 PYD have links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU.

Replace the Kurds with “Arab populations”

“Erdogan’s threats against the Kurds must always be taken seriously,” warned Fabrice Balanche, professor at Lyon-II University and associate researcher 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.

Immediately after 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 regime in Damascus. In 2016, Kurds in Syria established the Federal Autonomous Zone of Rojava in areas abandoned by Assad’s forces in what some experts see as an attempt by Damascus to dissuade Kurds from joining the ranks of the rebellion.

Ankara, however, rejects the slightest hint of Kurdish autonomy near its borders, seeing it as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity amid fears that Kurdish-held military bases and training camps will take advantage eventually to the PKK. Erdogan therefore wants to create a buffer zone 480 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide between the southern border of Turkey and the Syrian territories east of the Euphrates.

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Ankara has displayed “total opposition” to an autonomous Syrian-Kurdish presence south of its border, Balanche said, and has launched several offensives in the region. “The objective has not changed: to replace the Kurds with Arab populations displaced by the conflict and with local pro-Turkish militias loyal to Ankara’s interests in order to constitute an Arab belt, a kind of anti-Kurdish buffer zone , in northern Syria,” he said.

“Eventually, given that the Turks have already created the Syrian National Army (ANS), which includes Islamist militias and has around 70,000 men, the territories taken from the Kurds could become a self-proclaimed Republic of Northern Syria, as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” Balanche said.

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 a member of the EU, the TRNC – which declared itself in 1983 – is recognized only by Ankara and not by the rest of the international community.

A “winning” calculation

Since 2016, Erdogan has launched a number of military operations in northern Syria, including an offensive in March 2018 that saw his troops and their Syrian Islamist fighters seize control of the northern district of Afrin. The Kurdish forces that lost Afrin retreated further south towards Tel Rifaat.

In Turkey’s latest 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 focuses on the war in Ukraine, presenting Turkey with a geopolitical opportunity that Erdogan does not want to pass up.

“Calculating that it is the right time to go back on the offensive 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. “He asks the Westerners in a way what is their priority: to thwart the Kremlin’s plans in Europe or to support the PKK? Presented thus, his calculation is not losing.”

In a June 9 speech in the western Turkish province of Izmir, on the last day of military exercises, Erdogan stressed that “we hope that none of our true allies will oppose our concerns legitimate”.

“Erdogan’s calculation could well be a winner,” Balanche said, noting that the Turks, “with their air and technological superiority, succeeded in driving out the 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 within a month. “The Turks could have gone even further without Russian mediation and a ceasefire,” Balanche said. “If Recep Tayyip Erdogan decides to launch an offensive against Kobane or Manbij, where the population is 85% Arab, he could easily achieve the same results.”

American warnings, tacit agreement from Russia

By all accounts, it seems like nothing can stop the Turkish president from achieving his goals in northern Syria – despite American warnings.

On June 1, during a joint press conference in Washington with visiting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that “any escalation in northern Syria is something something we would oppose, and we support maintaining the current ceasefire lines. Our concern is that any new offensive would jeopardize regional stability.

But Balanche isn’t sure Washington’s warnings will stop Turkey. “Americans have protested and will protest even more if Turkey takes action against the Kurds they promised to protect. But they don’t have the means to prevent it,” he said.

The Biden administration can impose sanctions on Ankara, but Turkey holds too many geostrategic maps, including a right to veto a NATO membership bid from Sweden and Finland.

Like the United States, neither the Iranians, nor the Assad regime, nor its Russian sponsors want to see the Turks take control of parts of Syrian territory.

“The Iranians have set red lines, namely not to touch Shiite areas, nor Aleppo, while Assad’s army is not in a position to oppose the Turkish military machine,” Balanche noted.

While Russia has said a Turkish operation in northern Syria would be “reckless”, Moscow is not outright opposed to Erdogan’s plan since the Kurds have refused to return to the control of the Assad regime – and therefore under Russian protection.

And at a time when Russia faces serious pressure from the West, Moscow is not inclined to sabotage its cordial relations with Turkey, a loose cannon in the NATO lap.

During his visit to Ankara on June 8, Russian 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, abandoned by Donald Trump in December 2018, find themselves back against the wall again. “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, do nothing to support them”, said declared Balanche. are therefore waiting for 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 aid.

Erdogan knows it too. 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 as war rages in Ukraine, the Turkish leader seems determined to do what it takes to “feel safe”.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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