Turkey presses Syria intervention against Kurdish forces despite agreement with US

The planned incursion would target areas east of the Euphrates and could see Turkish troops push 40km into Syrian territory, Turkish news reports said.
Saturday 17/08/2019
A Turkish military truck patrols at the border with Syria in Akcakale in south-eastern Turkey, August 14. (AFP)
Syrian cake. A Turkish military truck patrols at the border with Syria in Akcakale in south-eastern Turkey, August 14. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkish officials said an agreement with the United States about a “security zone” in northern Syria does not prevent it from unilateral action to send troops into the neighbouring country to drive Kurdish fighters away from the border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking after Turkish and US officials agreed on a deal for northern Syria, indicated intervention by Turkish troops could start before the end of August despite the arrangement with Washington.

In a message to the nation to mark Eid al-Adha, Erdogan said a military operation by Ankara in Syria in 2016 started August 1 of that year. “This August, God willing, we will add another victory to the ones in our history,” Erdogan said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would not let plans for a “security zone” in north-eastern Syria stall over negotiations with the United States.

Both statements reflected the deep mistrust felt by Turkish policymakers towards the United States.

Turkey’s government accuses Washington of trying to gain time to protect America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and Turkish drones recently started operating over northern Syria.

The comments by Erdogan and Cavusoglu also suggested that the Turkish leadership is sticking to its plan to push the People’s Protection Units (YPG) away from Turkey’s southern border. The YPG is the strongest member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of groups supported by Washington to fight the Islamic State.

While Washington has been arming the SDF, Ankara says the YPG is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant organisation regarded as a terrorist outfit by both countries and much of the international community.

Turkey said a system of regional Kurdish autonomy run by the YPG and its political mother organisation, the Democratic Union Party, is a threat to its national security. Ankara sent troops into Syrian regions west of the Euphrates River in 2016 and in 2018 to break up what it calls the YPG “terror corridor.” The planned new incursion would target areas east of the Euphrates and could see Turkish troops push 40km into Syrian territory, Turkish news reports said.

Erdogan, whose country has taken in 3.6 million refugees from Syria, is under domestic pressure because of a rising anti-Syrian sentiment among Turks. He argues that a “security zone” in Syria could be used to resettle refugees.

The agreement between Turkish and US officials, reached August 7, envisions a joint operations centre for northern Syria aimed at creating a “security zone.” The three-point accord described the zone as a “peace corridor” to ensure the return of Syrians to their country but it said nothing about the size and nature of the zone or who should patrol it. Turkey wants its soldiers to be in control but the United States reportedly suggested joint US-Turkish patrols.

The US Department of Defence said the agreement would be implemented gradually. A six-person US delegation travelled to the Turkish province of Sanliurfa to work on the establishing the operations centre.

Observers said the agreement leaves many questions unanswered.

Turkey and the United States continued to pursue conflicting priorities in Syria, said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group. ”The fundamental dilemma has not been solved and may not be solvable anyway,” he said by telephone. “However, it’s not necessarily bad to buy time. As long as the parties keep talking, Turkey will not invade.”

Middle East expert Aaron Stein said there were no indications that Ankara would compromise and recognise the SDF as a legitimate actor.

Stein, director of the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said on the institute’s website that the United States and Turkey had different views of the planned joint operations centre.

“The United States could use the operations room to buy more time and prevent a unilateral Turkish intervention, while also signalling to Ankara that it remains committed to working through differences over the proposed safe zone,” Stein wrote.

“For Turkey, the proposed operations room needs to demonstrate American intent and commitment to set up the poorly named ‘peace corridor’ that Ankara has pledged to establish along the Turkish-Syrian border.”

Turkish journalist Fikret Bila pointed out that the agreement was “far away from the model proposed by Turkey.”

Writing in an analysis for the T24 news website, Bila said priorities of Ankara and Washington in northern Syria remained “180 degrees apart.” While Turkey’s main aim was to break the YPG’s power, the United States wanted to keep the Kurdish militia strong, he said.

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said by e-mail that the United States was unlikely to grant Turkey “real power” to move against the YPG.

“The US is looking on this new deal with Turkey as a stop-gap measure to allow for further negotiations and stalling,” he said. “It was designed to avert a Turkish invasion and not to provide a mechanism for Turkish military penetration of Syrian territory.”

The US-Turkish talks came at a delicate moment between NATO partners Turkey and the United States, which have grown increasingly estranged over several issues, including Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian S-400 missile defence system.