BEIRUT: In northern Syria, residents are preparing for a new fight. As the world’s attention focuses on the war in Ukraine, the Turkish leader has said he is planning a major military operation to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters and create a long-sought buffer zone in the border area.
Tensions are high. Hardly a day goes by without an exchange of fire and shelling between US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition gunmen.
Analysts say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to further his own goals in neighboring Syria, even using Turkey’s ability as a NATO member to veto Turkey’s membership. Finland and Sweden to the alliance as potential leverage.
But a major Ankara incursion comes with risks and complications, threatening to upend Turkey’s relationship with the United States and Russia.
It also risks creating a new wave of displacement in a war-torn region where the Daesh group still lurks in the shadows.
Here is an overview of the situation on the ground and some of the main issues:
Last month, Erdogan outlined his intention to resume Turkish efforts to create a 30km-deep buffer zone in Syria along its southern border with a cross-border incursion against US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. Erdogan wanted to create this zone in 2019, but a military operation failed to achieve this.
“We will come upon them suddenly one night. And we have to,” Erdogan said, without giving a specific timeline.
Since 2016, Turkey has launched three major operations inside Syria, targeting Syria’s main Kurdish militia – the People’s Protection Units or YPG – which Turkey considers a terrorist organization and an extension of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, or PKK, banned. The PKK has been waging an insurgency in Turkey against the Ankara government for decades.
The YPG, however, forms the backbone of US-led forces in the fight against Daesh militants and has been a prominent US ally in Syria.
Turkey, through the three previous military operations in Syria, already controls much of Syrian territory, including the cities of Afrin, Tel Abyad and Jarablus. Ankara plans to build thousands of homes in these areas, to ensure what it says is the “voluntary return” of one million of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
Erdogan said on Wednesday that Turkish troops were now aiming to conquer new areas, including the towns of Tel Rifaat and Manbij, which lie on a major intersection of roads on Syria’s west-east highway known as the M4. . Turkey says Syrian Kurdish fighters are using Tel Rifaat as a base to attack areas held by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters.
It has also been reported that Turkish troops could enter the strategic border town of Kobani, where the US military and Kurdish fighters first united to defeat ISIS in 2015. The town holds powerful symbolism for the Syrian Kurds and their ambitions for autonomy in this part. from Syria.
Analysts say Erdogan likely sees a confluence of circumstances, both international and domestic, that make an operation in Syria timely. Russians are preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, and Americans need Erdogan to drop his objections to NATO expansion to include Finland and Sweden.
“They (the Turks) sense an opportunity to try to extract concessions from the West,” said Aaron Stein, head of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
An offensive in Syria could also be used to rally Turkish nationalist voters at a time when their economy is in decline, with inflation at 73.5%. Turkey is set to hold presidential and parliamentary elections next year, and previous incursions into Syria to oust the YPG have bolstered support for Erdogan in previous polls.
So far, there are no signs of mobilization indicating an imminent invasion, although the Turkish army could be called in fairly quickly. Syrian Kurdish fighters, however, say they are taking Turkey’s latest threat seriously and preparing for a possible attack.
They warn that an incursion would affect their ongoing fight against Daesh and their ability to protect prisons in northern Syria where thousands of extremists, many of them foreign nationals, have been locked up since the territorial defeat of Daesh three years ago. year.
A large-scale military operation carries high risks and is likely to anger the United States and Russia, which also have a military presence in northern Syria.
Turkey and Russia support rival sides in Syria’s 11-year conflict, but coordinate closely in the north of the country. Although Russia has not officially commented, in recent days it has sent fighter jets and helicopter gunships to a base near the border with Turkey, according to Syrian opposition activists.
As one of Damascus’ closest allies, Russia’s role in Syria has been instrumental in turning the tide of Syria’s conflict – which began amid the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 – in favor of the president. Syrian Bashar Assad. Syrian opposition fighters have been relegated to a northwest enclave and within Turkey’s sphere of influence.
But with Moscow focused on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to stand in the way of Erdogan on what is essentially just a strip of land along Turkey’s southern border.