Amid shelling of Kurdish positions, Turkey plans new incursion into Syria

A full-scale military intervention east of the Euphrates could affect the approximately 2,000 US troops deployed in northern Syria to support and arm the YPG.
Sunday 04/11/2018
The calm before the storm. A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter sits at the newly renamed “Salah Aldin Alaiobi” circle in the north-western Syrian city of Afrin, on October 9.                           (AFP)
The calm before the storm. A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter sits at the newly renamed “Salah Aldin Alaiobi” circle in the north-western Syrian city of Afrin, on October 9. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - In a decision that is driving up tensions with Washington, the Turkish Army shelled Kurdish forces allied with the United States in northern Syria in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Raising the stakes further, the Turkish government threatened a new cross-border operation east of the Euphrates River.

As Turkish howitzers fired into Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers of his ruling Justice and Development Party on October 30 that the army would destroy “terrorist structures” east of the river, a region that has been off limits for the Turks.

The US government expressed concern about the shelling that killed ten Kurdish fighters, Turkey’s state-owned news agency Anadolu said. “Unilateral military strikes into north-western Syria by any party, particularly as American personnel may be present or in the vicinity, are of great concern to us,” US Deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said.

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces said it reserved “the right to retaliate.” Kurdish rebels said they destroyed a Turkish armoured personnel carrier on the border in response to the shelling.

The escalation came after the United States and Turkey resolved a bitter row over the detention of a US pastor in Turkey that sent the Turkish currency into a tailspin.

Turkey and the United States have been at loggerheads over Washington’s support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, a vital US partner in the fight against ISIS. Turkey regards the YPG a terrorist organisation that must not be allowed to control territory.

Ankara and Washington are also at odds over Turkey’s intention to buy a Russian missile defence system.

The Turkish government seems in no mood to call off its new push into Syria. “We have finalised our preparations, our plans, our programmes in that respect,” Erdogan said.

Pro-government Turkish media said Ankara’s plan is to establish a 30km-wide corridor south of the Turkish-Syrian border from the Euphrates in the west to the Iraqi border in the east. Since Turkey secured the Syrian regions of Jarabulus and Afrin west of the Euphrates in previous interventions, such a move would, in effect, end the Kurdish presence in the border region.

Ankara said so-called safe zones within Syria are needed for the repatriation of 3 million Syrian refugees that streamed into Turkey during the war. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said 260,000 Syrian refugees had returned to Jarabulus since 2016. Critics say Ankara uses the return of refugees to boost the number of pro-Turkish Arabs in Kurdish areas.

The YPG used US help to establish an autonomous region along the Turkish border east of the Euphrates. A full-scale military intervention could affect the approximately 2,000 US troops deployed in northern Syria to support and arm the YPG.

“In recent days we have started the active engagement against the terrorist organisation,” Erdogan said of the artillery shelling. Anadolu reported that Turkish forces started bombarding YPG positions east of the river on October 28. “We will come down on the terrorist organisation in a more comprehensive and efficient operation soon,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan’s announcement came three days after he hosted the leaders of Russia, France and Germany in Istanbul. The meeting called for a sustained truce in the rebel-held province of Idlib and for the start of a political process to develop a post-war political structure in Syria. The summit communique did not include a demand for Syria’s President Bashar Assad to cede power.

The meeting, to which the United States was not invited, was a sign of increased efforts by international powers to end the Syrian war while Washington pursues its own goals. “America stays engaged in Syria but it has chosen to go it alone,” said Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

The Istanbul summit carried a message for developments in eastern Syria, where the United States and the YPG control oil fields and regions of rich farmland. Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the conference strengthened players that wanted the United States to leave Syria altogether. “Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia want to drive the US out of North Syria and end its alliance with the YPG,” Landis wrote on Twitter.

Washington has tried to reassure Turkey that the US bond with the YPG is purely tactical, while being careful not to endanger its alliance with the YPG because the fight against ISIS remains the focal point of the Trump administration’s Syria policy.

Turkey and the United States have started joint military patrols in Manbij, a northern Syrian city west of the Euphrates where the YPG took control after driving out ISIS two years ago. The Kurdish militia agreed to withdraw from the town earlier this year after US and Turkish officials worked out a plan for joint patrols.

Turan said the Manbij agreement showed that a direct confrontation between Ankara and Washington over their different priorities in northern Syria was not inevitable.