Erdogan’s threat of Syria intervention puts Turkey, US at ‘crossroads’

Erdogan wants to force Washington to make a decision on its cooperation with the YPG.
Sunday 16/12/2018
The heat is on. A military vehicle is transported as part of a convoy on the outskirts of the city of Kilis in south-eastern Turkey near the border with Syria, December 13. (Ismet Bicen/IHA)
The heat is on. A military vehicle is transported as part of a convoy on the outskirts of the city of Kilis in south-eastern Turkey near the border with Syria, December 13. (Ismet Bicen/IHA)

ISTANBUL - By announcing a new military intervention into Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put relations between his country and the United States at a “crossroads,” analysts said.

Following incursions into Syria west of the Euphrates River in 2016 and this year, Turkey was planning to send troops into a Syrian region east of the river “in the coming days,” Erdogan said during a televised speech December 12 in Ankara.

The statement caused concern in Washington because the region is the deployment area of approximately 2,000 US troops who have been fighting the Islamic State with the help of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia. Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist organisation.

Erdogan’s announcement was both a sign of frustration by Turkey over the US alliance with the YPG and a rhetorical warning shot. Ankara has asked Washington for years to stop supporting and arming the Kurdish group but has been ignored.

Now Erdogan wants to force Washington to decide on its cooperation with the YPG, said Celalettin Yavuz, a professor at Istanbul’s Ayvansaray University. “We have reached a crossroads with the United States,” Yavuz said.

Erdogan was not bluffing, he added. “At the very least, we will see Turkish air strikes” east of the Euphrates, Yavuz said. “Maybe there will be more.”

Reports in pro-government media in Turkey said tanks, armoured personnel carriers and crack army units had been deployed near the Syria border. Syrian rebels allied with Turkey said up to 15,000 of their fighters were ready to join the advance against the YPG.

Analysts said Erdogan wants the United States to force the Kurdish militia to withdraw from the border region. Ankara was trying to put significant pressure on the United States to enable Turkey to create a buffer zone 15-20km into Syrian territory to push back the YPG, Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, wrote on Twitter.

Erdogan said another aim of the new incursion would be to drive the YPG out of Manbij, a town 20km south of the Turkish border on the west bank of the Euphrates. Turkey and the United States agreed on a plan for a YPG withdrawal in June but Erdogan said it had not been implemented.

“We will start the operation to clear the east of the Euphrates from separatist terrorists in a few days,” Erdogan said in his speech at a defence industry meeting.

“Our target is never US soldiers,” he said. However, he did not hide his disappointment with Washington. “They are not being honest. They are still not removing terrorists (from Manbij),” Erdogan said. “Therefore, we will do it.”

Describing Manbij as a place where the Arab population had surrendered “to the terror organisation” YPG, Erdogan, speaking December 14 at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, said: “We are saying that you should cleanse, remove them or else we will enter Manbij.” He repeated that Turkey was determined to bring “peace and security” east of the Euphrates where the YPG controls area stretching more than 400km along the border towards Iraq.

Turkey is also unhappy with a US decision to set up observation posts in northern Syria. Ankara says the posts are aimed at shielding the YPG from Turkish attacks. “We know that the aim of the radar and observation posts set up by the United States is not to protect our country from terrorists, but to protect the terrorists from Turkey,” Erdogan said.

Three observation posts have been set up, a US official told Reuters. The official said the positions were clearly marked and any force attacking them “would definitely know they are attacking the United States.”

Within hours of Erdogan’s announcement, the US Defence Department warned that any unilateral military action would undermine the shared interest of securing the border between Syria and Turkey in a sustainable way.

“Unilateral military action into north-east Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” US Navy Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “We would find any such actions unacceptable.”

Turkey is unlikely to be impressed by such warnings, Yavuz said. Ankara regarded the YPG presence in northern Syria as a threat to Turkey’s national security and was determined to do something about it. “This determination is not limited to the government,” Yavuz said.

Erdogan’s political partner in parliament, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, as well as Turkey’s biggest opposition group, the Republican People’s Party, shared the government assessment.