Turkish troops ready to launch new Syria offensive

(Updated with SDF reaction, analyst and Turkish vice president comments)

Turkish troops are ready to launch an offensive into neighbouring Syria, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Tuesday, but Syrian Kurdish leaders said an invasion could lead to the resurgence of Islamic State (ISIS) in the region.

Turkey has long threatened to invade northeast Syria to remove from the border area Syrian Kurdish forces that the Turkish government sees as a threat to national security. But Turkey has until now held back due to the presence of U.S. troops in the region helping the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS.

President Donald Trump, however, abruptly reversed U.S. policy after a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the weekend and gave the green light for a Turkish military incursion into the Syrian Kurdish-held region.

"Turkish armed forces will not allow for the formation of a terror corridor along its border. All preparations are completed for the operation," the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Twitter.

Turkey regards the multi-ethnic SDF, dominated by the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terrorist organisation saying it is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed campaign for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984.

Turkey, the European Union and the United States all list the PKK as a terrorist organisation, though the YPG and SDF deny any organisational links to the group.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday accused the U.S. military of still being in close contact with the YPG and its political wing, the PYD, despite the U.S. pledge to withdraw.

"At this stage, the promises of the U.S. military authorities have not been fulfilled. In the process, the U.S. security bureaucracy has increased rather than cut its engagement with the PYD/YPG terrorist organisation,” the ministry said.

Also on Tuesday, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Turkey would not bow to threats over its Syria plans, in an apparent response to President Donald Trump's vow, in tweets on Monday, to "destroy and obliterate" Turkey's economy if it does anything "off limits" in Syria. 

"Where Turkey's security is concerned, we determine our own path (and) set our own limits," Oktay said, the Associated Press reported

The SDF lost some 10,000 fighters in the battle to defeat the caliphate set up in eastern Syria by ISIS, a group it has accused Turkey’s Islamist government of backing with purchases of fuel from ISIS-controlled oilfields and by allowing foreign fighters to cross Turkish territory to join the jihadists.

While the ISIS caliphate has been extinguished as a physical entity, U.S. military officials say up to 10,000 of its fighters are still at large in remote parts of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria.

An SDF commander said a Turkish military invasion would endanger the gains against ISIS.

"If this decision is implemented, of course a fight is going to erupt between us and the Turks in the northern border," SDF commander Mazloum Kobani told U.S. defence news website Defense One in an interview. “This is going to jeopardize all the achievements we have made with the coalition against ISIS."

A New York Times editorial on Monday echoed this view, pointing out that if the SDF must fight Turkish forces it would need to shift its troops away from the fight against ISIS. Analysts said this could also rebound on Turkey.

“If Turkey alone finds that there’s a resurgent ISIS that’s too big to handle, it could find itself in trouble,” Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. diplomat and White House official, told the Independent newspaper.

Top U.S. lawmakers have condemned the decision by Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, saying it would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime.

Senior U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a strong voice on foreign policy known for his strong support of Trump, has said he was prepared to introduce bipartisan sanctions against Turkey should it enter Syria.

"If Turkey moves into northern Syria, sanctions from hell – by Congress – will follow. Wide, deep, and devastating sanctions,'' Graham said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Analysts also warn that a Turkish incursion would destabilise a region already bitterly divided between regional power blocks and further complicate the multi-side Syrian civil war, in which powers such as Russia and Iran have become increasingly ascendant.