Erdogan continues to push strategy in Syria
Istanbul - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey-backed rebel groups under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) might continue their advance into Syrian territory to expand their zone of control to an area spanning 5,000 sq. km. This would include the tactically crucial town of al-Bab, currently in the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
Erdogan also renewed his call for the establishment of a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Analysts warned that this new advance might lead to a conflict of interest with other parties involved in Syria and to an escalation of the war.
“Jarabulus has been [taken]. Are the city’s residents happily returning? They are. Al-Rai has also been [cleansed of ISIS militants]. Now we are advancing south as far as al-Bab,” Erdogan said prior to his departure for the UN General Assembly in New York. “Why are we going there? We need to make sure that these places cease to be a threat to us.”
Local media reported that the Turkish military announced it had hit 67 ISIS targets between Azaz and al-Rai inside Syria and that at least five ISIS militants were killed.
Ankara launched the military incursion — dubbed Euphrates Shield — into Syria on August 24th, deploying Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces as well as Turkish troops with the aim of clearing its border areas from ISIS and block further territorial gains by the fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Ankara says is a sister organisation to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
After sealing the southern Turkish border at Jarabulus and al-Rai, cutting off a crucial ISIS supply route, Turkey is pushing to strengthen its position in Syria and to roll back YPG territorial gains in the country’s north. One way to achieve this would be to wrest al- Bab, a town 30km south of the Turkish border, from the hands of ISIS, which captured it in January 2014.
“Al-Bab holds important strategic values for several reasons,” said Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and columnist for Washington-based Al- Monitor. “Geographically it is a crucial spot for the control of the north of Syria. If Turkey captures al-Bab, it would end the dream of uniting the Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border as well.”
Turkey has long been unnerved by the territorial gains of the Kurds in northern Syria and the possibility of more Kurdish autonomy across its border, which might fuel the ambitions of Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.
This position puts Ankara at odds with Washington where the YPG is seen as a strong ally in the fight against ISIS. Gurcan stressed that while the first phase of Operation Euphrates Shield, with the objective to clear ISIS from Turkey’s borders, had been in the interest of all actors involved in Syria, including Moscow and Damascus, the new push by Ankara represented a divergence of interests.
“Ankara wants the green light from Washington to capture al-Bab,” said Gurcan, “and Washington wants to see the performance of the Turkey-backed FSA on the ground. The Americans know that the YPG is both motivated and combat-proven in the fight against ISIS but it remains to be seen how effective the FSA will be. Ankara is eager to prove to its allies that they can do the job and that the United States does not need the Kurds in Syria anymore.”
Speaking September 20th at the United Nations, Erdogan defended the Turkish military operation in Syria as having brought “peace and stability” to “a region taken over by desperation” and reiterated his demand to establish a “safe zone” or “no-fly zone” inside Syria.
“We have been planning to build homes and social facilities in a safe zone in northern Syria,” Erdogan said before leaving Turkey. “This has not happened until now but I do hope that we will be able to from now on.”
Approximately 120,000 displaced Syrians live in camps set up and run by the Turkey-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation just across the border. Aid workers familiar with the area warned that some of the camps were dangerously close to the front lines of the conflict. Turkey has repeatedly argued for the creation of safe zones but international human rights groups have warned that setting them up on the Syrian side of the border and refusing to allow those fleeing the conflict to seek protection could be a violation of international law and put vulnerable people at risk.
“Calling a place embroiled in conflict ‘safe’ matters,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Geneva Conventions, one of the principal sources of the laws of war, use specific terms such as ‘neutralised zone’ and ‘safety zone’ to describe places such as hospitals that are deemed to be neutral, demilitarised and therefore areas of safety that all parties to any conflict must respect. It is more likely to be a death trap than a place of sanctuary.”
Simpson underlined that the area proposed by Turkey was highly contested by all warring parties, making it difficult to meet the standards set by the Geneva Conventions.