“We will obliterate the terrorist corridor east of the Euphrates,” vowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again on 26 July. That afternoon, his Defence Ministry announced that a Turkish soldier was killed and two were wounded in clashes with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Hakari in southeast Anatolia. This, too, is not new in the endless chain of bloodshed in the decades long Turkish-Kurdish war.
In the framework its relentless military approach to the intractable Kurdish question, Ankara rejects the presence of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), which it brands as “terrorist”, on the other side of the border. It also deeply resents Washington’s backing of the SDF as the main force on the ground in the battle against the Islamic State group in Syria.
The SDF, for its part, remains entrenched in the predominantly Kurdish region of northeast Syria and the US appears to have no intention to abandon them to the Turkish military machine despite Ankara’s persistent demands during the past two years.
In fact, Turkey under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has launched two wars across its southern borders. Its offensives in northern Syria go by such names as Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield. Its other war is in Iraqi Kurdistan and is termed Operation Claw. Both target Kurdish movements, parties, factions and forces of which only the PKK is designated as a terrorist group in the US and Europe.
Following unsuccessful talks with US officials in Ankara on 22-24 July, Turkish media reported that Ankara’s “patience has run out” and that preparations were being finalised for an extensive campaign east of the Euphrates. Turkish forces could pounce overnight, they warned, in the event talks with the US fail to establish a “safe zone” in Syria east of the Euphrates. According to the US Embassy in Ankara, at least, the talks have not failed yet. On 24 July, the US State Department announced that the talks that had just taken place were “sincere, constructive and fruitful” and that “Ankara and Washington are continuing to exchange views over common concerns in Syria.”
Meanwhile, tensions are mounting along the border. Turkey is continuing to amass forces across the border from Tel Abyad, Ras Al-Ain and Ain Al-Arab (Kobani). The SDF has mobilised its forces to intercept a possible Turkish assault, declaring that it will not permit another “Afrin”, referring to the northwest Syrian province that Turkish forces have occupied since March 2018 in collaboration with militia groups opposed to the regime in Damascus. US forces continue to patrol the border area in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates, as well as the area around Manbij, about 50 kilometres west of the Euphrates, while Bashar Al-Assad’s forces have positioned themselves in the rural area to the north and west of Manbij between the forces of Manbij Military Council (MMC) and the Syrian “revolutionary” forces under Turkish command.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Turkish intelligence agency (MIT) plans to organise 20-day long military training courses in Turkey for the pro-Turkish factions that took part in the Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield operations. The training will include strengthening their skills in the use of advanced weaponry and anti-tank missilery. It is noteworthy that MIT insists that combatants who had previously received training also attend. The programme apparently awaits the go-ahead from the presidential palace in Ankara.
US President Trump has not yet commented on the fraught situation. However, the Pentagon has reiterated its position that only through dialogue and coordination can the US and Turkey address their security concerns. “We have made clear that unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable,” said Pentagon Spokesman Commander Sean Robertson.
Will Erdogan heed the warning? If so, it would not be the first time he sounded the war drums and backed down to bide his time. But this time, the chances are stronger that he will proceed. Much hinges on Trump. In January, Trump warned that the US would “devastate” the Turkish economy if Turkey pressed ahead with an incursion into northwest Syria. But, as the AhvalNews site observes, Trump appears to have slackened his defence of the SDF and Erdogan may also feel encouraged by Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for imposing sanctions on Turkey because of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400s.
Supposing Erdogan does go ahead with a third major incursion into northeast Syria, would a resultant Turkish-occupied or run “safe zone” solve Turkey’s security concerns? Probably not. One of the many reasons for this is to be found in northern Iraq to which some PKK insurgents have relocated. Despite the frequent airstrikes Turkey has launched into neighbouring Iraq during recent years to “bury” the Kurdish separatists there, it has made no progress on that front.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan eyes Syrian Kurds