Turkey’s Erdoğan defies U.S. warnings to vow Syria operation ‘very soon’

(Updated with quotes from SDF commander Mazloum Kobani in paragraphs 14-16)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday shrugged off U.S. warnings to repeat his declaration that Turkey would soon to launch a new military operation against Kurdish-led militias and autonomous administrations in northern Syria.

Turkey has ramped up preparations for an assault on Syrian Kurdish regions south of its border, which are dominated by the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and its affiliates.

U.S. support for the YPG, which is a key player in the international coalition against Islamic State (ISIS), has driven a wedge between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organisation due to its links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, and it sees the U.S. provision of military supplies to the group as cultivating a threat to its security.

“As long as the structure continues to grow like a cancer on our southern border, with heavy weaponry provided by our allies, Turkey cannot feel secure,” Erdoğan said in a speech at an ambassadors’ conference in Ankara on Tuesday.

Turkey is on the verge of launching a military operation to tackle the threat, Erdoğan said. This would be the Turkish army’s third major incursion into northern Syria, after launching Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in 2018.

“We will very soon move to a new phase in the process started with the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch,” Erdoğan said in his speech.

This was the second time in days that the Turkish president vowed to confront Kurdish-led forces in Syria, after declaring Turkey’s forces ready to move into the Kurdish-held areas east of the River Euphrates on Sunday.

The United States responded by saying it would find any such move unacceptable.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper repeated the warning on Tuesday before Erdoğan’s speech, stating that the United States would work to prevent unilateral incursions.

“Clearly we believe any unilateral action by them (Turkey) would be unacceptable,” Reuters quoted Esper as saying during a trip to Japan.

“What we’re going to do is prevent unilateral incursions that would upset, again, these mutual interests ... the United States, Turkey and the SDF share with regard to northern Syria,” Esper said, referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic group that includes many fighters and commanders from the YPG. 

The U.S. defence secretary “stopped short of guaranteeing that the United States would protect” the Kurdish groups, Reuters said.

But SDF commander Mazloum Kobani said the greatest hope to prevent a new Turkish operation lay with the United States.

"We believe that the U.S. is the main power that is capable of influencing Turkey's position and stop its threats against us," Kobani told Voice of America in an interview on Tuesday.

"The U.S. is the leader of the NATO alliance, and so it has leverage over Turkey within the NATO framework," Kobani said.

U.S. officials will be doing their utmost to prevent an attack during the ongoing military-to-military meetings on the issue in Ankara.

At the talks, which began on Monday, the U.S. officials will attempt to negotiate down Turkey’s demands on a “safe zone” south of the Turkish border that has been proposed as a solution to the confrontation.

Turkey’s demands of a 20-mile safe zone along the full extent of the border east of the Euphrates is far in excess of the latest offer made by Washington, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Washington proposed a safe zone that would run up to nine miles south of an 87-mile stretch of the border, with heavy weapons drawn further back, the Washington Post said.

The offer included a promise to destroy YPG fortifications in the safe zone and hold joint patrols with Turkey along the relevant stretch of the border.

But Erdoğan’s statements on Tuesday indicate that a better offer will be required to dissuade Turkey from an attack.

The possible attack will be joined by as many as 14,000 fighters from the National Army, a Turkey-backed Syrian rebel group, Reuters reported on Monday.

Rebel groups have played a crucial role in Turkey’s two previous operations, and are preparing to assist the Turkish Armed Forces again in offensives to seize Arab-majority towns held by Kurdish forces, Reuters said.

“There are over 14,000 fighters who are ready to engage in combat operations east of the Euphrates alongside Turkish forces,” Reuters quoted National Army spokesman Major Youssef Hamoud as saying.