Turkey will ‘obliterate’ Kurdish forces east of Euphrates - Erdoğan

(Updated with Erdoğan's comments on F-35s and S-400s and analysis from 13th paragraph)

Turkey is determined to launch an operation against Kurdish militants in northeast Syria regardless of the outcome of ongoing talks with the United States, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday.

“Whatever the outcome of safe zone talks with the United States, we will obliterate the east of the River Euphrates”, Erdoğan said, referring to the area controlled by Kurdish-dominated autonomous administrations and militias.

Turkey counts the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as terrorist groups due to their links to insurgents fighting for Kurdish self-rule within Turkey. The United States has cooperated with the groups to combat the Islamic State, and leading U.S. politicians have vowed to protect the groups from Turkish attack.

“Those who behave like regional strongmen while trusting in the protection of foreign forces will either abase themselves or go to their graves,” Erdoğan told provincial leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at Friday’s meeting in Ankara.

Turkish forces have been building up along the border with Syria in recent weeks, raising speculation that a third cross-border operation into Syria is a possibility.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar’s statement on Thursday that Turkey was ready to “take the initiative” was widely interpreted by the Turkish press as a sign that an attack could be imminent.

Large areas of northern and northwest Syria were taken under Turkish control in two previous operations against Kurdish forces in 2017 and 2018.

The area east of the River Euphrates, however, is considered a vastly more challenging prospect for Turkey. Some 100,000 Kurdish and allied troops are estimated to be deployed in a region that shares a 600-km border with Turkey. 

U.S. forces are also deployed in the region and U.S. President Donald Trump has warned that he would “devastate” Turkey’s economy if it pressed forward with an attack.

Previous Turkish threats of attack led to the beginning of negotiations led by Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy dealing with Syria and the fight against Islamic State, on the creation of a “safe zone” to prevent a conflict. 

On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters that the situation on the Syrian border was “incredible sensitive”.

“We have American troops present there. We all continue to work closely with Turkey. Ambassador Jeffrey is working very hard on this issue of the safe zone with Turkey," Ortagus said.

The tension over the two countries’ diverging Syria policies has been accompanied by a long-running dispute over Turkey’s defence procurement policy, which has seen it defy Washington’s warnings to purchase Russian S-400 missile defence systems. 

The Trump administration has been reluctant to follow through with U.S. Congress-mandated sanctions under a 2017 bill designed to clamp down on international collaboration with Russia’s defence industry.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump’s and a frequent interlocutor with Erdoğan’s administration, told Defense One on Thursday that he had been asked offer to begin negotiations on a free trade deal with the Turkish foreign minister if Ankara agreed to refrain from activating the S-400s.

But Erdoğan in his speech on Friday was yet again unwavering on the matter. 

“I hope the United States will be sensible … We will begin to actively use the systems in April 2020,” the Turkish president said.

Turkey would not be dissuaded by its suspension from the F-35 fighter jet programme, or any other sanction, Erdoğan said.

The Turkish president said Turkey was looking at alternatives for the F-35 jets after being suspended from the programme this month. Russian officials have spoken positively about selling Turkey Su-35 jets or involving the country in production of the latest generation Su-57s.

“I’m saying this to members of (the U.S.) Congress. Are you not going to give us the F-35 jets? In that case we will take new measures and look elsewhere,” he said.

Trump’s hesitance to implement sanctions was inspired by threats by Erdoğan to remove U.S. troops from a crucial airbase in southern Turkey – or take the extreme step of ending Turkey’s membership of NATO – if sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act are placed, NBC News reported on Wednesday.

Turkey has started a process to evaluate the U.S. presence at İncirclik airbase as well as another important NATO asset in Turkey, the Kürecik radar station, Turkish Foreign Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Monday.

"If the Incirlik use is terminated, that would definitely create further discussion, over the future of Turkey's U.S. relationship and Turkey's place in NATO in general”, visiting Oxford University international relations scholar Galip Dalay told Voice of America.