Turkish troops ready to cross border into Syria east of Euphrates

Ankara says the aim of the expected incursion, the third since 2016, is to push the YPG back from the Turkish border.
Tuesday 18/12/2018
A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter trains in a camp in the Aleppo countryside, northern Syria, on December 16. (AFP)
A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter trains in a camp in the Aleppo countryside, northern Syria, on December 16. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and pro-Turkish militiamen are ready to start a new attack against Kurdish fighters in north-eastern Syria.

The push against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) east of the Euphrates River could start any moment, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on December 17. The Turkish daily Yeni Safak, which is close to the government, reported on December 18 that up to 24,000 Turkish soldiers and fighters of the Free Syrian Army were awaiting the order to advance.

Ankara says the aim of the expected incursion, the third since 2016, is to push the YPG back from the Turkish border. The Turkish militia, a key partner of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), has created an autonomous region on the Syrian side of the border but is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Turkey.

A new Turkish intervention could raise tensions between Ankara and Washington. But Ankara appears to be willing to take the risk because the move would potentially give Turkey more leverage to influence any post-war agreement on Syria. The Erdogan government says it will not accept Kurdish autonomy along its southern border.

“We can start our operations on Syrian soil at any time from locations that suit our planning. Our heroic army has completed its preparations and plans. As I always say, we may come suddenly one night,” Erdogan said. Yeni Safak reported that Turkish troops were expected to enter Syrian territory at ten different points and that the government wanted the first stage of the operation to be finished within two months.

Any new campaign is likely to be complicated by the presence of about 2,000 US soldiers in northern Syria, who have established observation posts along the Turkey-Syria border in a failed effort to assuage Turkish security concerns. Washington has communicated the positions of those observation posts to Ankara and warned that American forces would defend themselves if fired upon, officials told Reuters.

US support for the YPG has angered the government in Ankara and fanned anti-American sentiments among the Turkish public. Yeni Safak claimed that US troops helped the Kurdish militia to build “traps” on the Syrian border to defend the territory against a Turkish advance. The daily said Turkish ground troops would cross the border into Syria following air strikes and artillery bombardments against “strategic targets.”

Pro-government media in Turkey slammed the spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS, US Colonel Sean Ryan, for causing a “scandal” after he re-tweeted a post that said “terrorist Turkish army snipers” had shot on civilians on Syrian soil and killed a school girl. Ryan later apologised.

A source familiar with the Syria issue told Reuters that Erdogan was urged by the United States to refrain from a military incursion into Manbij, a Syrian town just west of the Euphrates held by the YPG, and was warned that the United States would defend itself if threatened. However, Erdogan has said Turkish forces will enter Manbij if the United States does not remove YPG fighters from the town.