Turkish offensive in northeast Syria more likely than ever

Turkey is more likely than ever to launch its long-threatened military incursion into northeast Syria despite the U.S.-Turkey safe zone deal, according to the latest analyses. 

Last month the United States and Turkey agreed to set up a safe zone in northeast Syria to address Ankara’s security concerns about the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have been key to the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State (ISIS). 

Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been at war in Turkey for over 30 years, and in recent weeks its defence minister and president have repeatedly threatened to invade the area if Washington is unable to agree to its terms on the safe zone. 

On Monday, Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney, a member of Turkey's Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Council, said the United States had failed to meet Turkey’s expectations about the safe zone. “A military intervention is highly probable if diplomacy fails,” she told state-run Anadolu Agency. 

Turkey is “expressing its extreme annoyance for Washington’s overt loyalty to a non-state actor that it perceives as a top national security threat,” Ali Demirdas, former international affairs professor at the College of Charleston, wrote in the National Interest on Monday, adding that shifting regional politics have made the incursion even more likely.

In July, Washington expelled Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet programme after Turkey began accepting deliveries of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems that NATO and U.S. officials said pose a threat to their military security. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Monday that the United States is considering levying sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase. 

The S-400 saga taught Ankara that it can shrug off U.S. threats by standing its ground, and taught Washington that it has reached the limits of coercing Turkey, according to Demirdas. In addition, he said, Turkey now has Russia to support its claims about YPG offenses in northeast Syria, such as hijacking oil fields and training terrorist groups. 

Meanwhile, the development of Turkey’s military has liberated it from western threats of arms embargoes, as it is now mostly self-sufficient, said Demirdas, adding that Turkish intelligence has greatly improved its operational ability as well. 

Demirdas points to the growing Turkish military presence in northern Iraq, particularly Operation Claw, an ongoing operation to eradicate bases of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and cut the area off from Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates. 

“The waning of America’s influence in the Middle East, the green light from regional actors—Russia, Iran, the Kurdish Regional Government, and the Iraqi Central Government, as well as the high-level readiness of the Turkish military and intelligence, makes a Turkish incursion in Syria very conducive,” he said. “Last month’s fragile agreement doesn’t seem like it is going to hold.”