Dec 14 2018

Erdogan says Turkey waited long enough to intervene in Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey has waited long enough to intervene militarily in an area of Syria controlled by Kurdish militants and the U.S. army.

His comments follow a pledge on Wednesday to start military operations east of the Euphrates river. He spoke despite consequent warnings by the U.S. to abandon the plans. 

“Turkey has wasted enough time before intervening against the terror swamp. We will no longer tolerate a single day of delay,” Erdoğan said at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul on Friday.

Turkey sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting a war for Kurdish autonomy from Turkey for more than 30 years. While the PKK is recognised as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, the YPG has become a lynchpin of U.S. efforts to destroy the last vestiges of Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. 

Erdogan also threatened to send Turkish troops into Manbij, a city in Syria under U.S.-Kurdish-Arab control near the Euphrates. 

“Now we are saying that you should cleanse, remove them {the YPG}, or else we will enter Manbij. I am speaking very clearly,” Erdoğan said.

Turkish troops from various bases around the country have been arriving in the southeastern city of Şanlıurfa, which borders Syria’s Tal Abyad, since Erdoğan’s speech on Wednesday, the pro-government Sabah newspaper reported on Friday

Erdoğan is upping the ante after his government consistently expressed disappointment about how slowly the United States is implementating a deal to pull YPG forces out of Manbij. Erdogan is also threatening to intervene despite U.S. efforts to appease Turkey by allowing joint U.S.-Turkish military patrols on the edge of Manbij city.

Washington, which has reportedly deployed around 2,000 troops in northeast Syria, warned Turkey on Wednesday that a military offensive could threaten U.S. personnel and derail the fight against ISIS.

“Unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” a State Department spokesperson told Ahval. “We would find any such actions unacceptable.”

Turkish and U.S. troops are pictured during a joint patrol in Manbij area, northern Syria November 8, 2018. (via Reuters)
Turkish and U.S. troops are pictured during a joint patrol in Manbij area, northern Syria November 8, 2018. (via Reuters)

Analysts in Turkey have different opinions about how a military campaign would affect Turkish-U.S. relations. Some say the Turkish operation can go ahead with little impact on relations, while others claim Washington has given the go-ahead for a limited strike.

“Turkey can conduct an operation without affecting the U.S. forces there,” said Abdullah Ağar, a terrorism and security expert. The risk of a confrontation between the two countries’ air forces was also unlikely, he told Deutsche Welle.

Faruk Loloğlu, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington, said that by announcing the operation in advance, Turkey has allowed time for opposing forces to prepare. 

According to Loloğlu, the delays in implementing the Manbij deal and Washington’s decision to set up observation posts along the border to reduce tensions between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters indicate that the NATO allies are on different frequencies when it comes to Syria. 

“I do not think they made a behind the curtains deal,” Loloğlu said, referring to reports that the operation was pre-negotiated with the United States. 

İlhan Uzgel, an international relations expert, said that the military plans were linked to March local elections and are designed to give the public the impression that Turkey successfully intervened to the east of the Euphrates. In reality, the operation will be carried out with the United States and will target regions where the presence of Kurdish forces is limited, he said, according to Deutsche Welle.

“Before the elections, Erdoğan will tell voters: we failed on the economy, but we’re giving you the east of the Euphrates,” he said. 

Retired lieutenant-general İsmail Hakkı Pekin, the former head of the Turkish military’s intelligence unit MIT, said a direct confrontation between Turkish and U.S. forces was unlikely. 

It is impossible for Turkey to conduct an operation against the Kurdish-controlled region along the 500-kilometre Turkish-Syrian border, Pekin told Cumhuriyet newspaper. Turkey will rather establish 15-20-kilometre long buffer zones in critical parts of the border region, he said. 

“They may target Sinjar {in Iraq} to cut the links between northern Iraq and Syria. Probably they will enter regions where Arabs are a majority,” he said.

“If the United States closes the air space in the region during the Turkish operation, then we can understand that it is against it,” Pekin said. Washington may in fact have given Turkey a green light to prevent further rapprochement with Russia, he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. President Donald Trump had a phone conversation with Erdogan, according to Turkish State News Agency Anadolu. Anadolu said both leaders have agreed to more effective coordination in Syria. There has been no readout from the American side.