Turkey claims its military preparations for a cross-border operation into Syria against a Kurdish militia are complete.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar made the announcement Tuesday.
“When the time comes, the necessary actions will be taken both in Manbij and east of the Euphrates,” Akar said during a visit to a military facility in Turkey’s Central Anatolian province of Eskisehir.
In the past month, Turkish forces have been massing along the Syrian border for a military strike against the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. Ankara considers the YPG as terrorists linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
Akar’s announcement will ramp up pressure on Washington, which is calling for restraint. The YPG was an ally in the U.S. war against the Islamic State.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he is determined to create a safe zone 250 kilometers long and 32 kilometers deep to protect Turkey’s frontier from attack.
Erdogan also sees the safe zone as solving another major problem facing Turkey.
“We are aiming in the first phase to create safe zones where four million Syrians who now live in our country can return,” said the Turkish president Monday to representatives of the Red Crescent and Red Cross in Istanbul.
With an eye on looming local elections in March, political observers suggest Erdogan’s comments aim to allay rising public discontent over refugees.
“There is a huge discontent, and there is probably a racial aspect involved – the Syrians haven’t fit into the Turkish society – as well as an economic dimension,” said political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.
A recent opinion poll said 13 percent of Turks cite the presence of Syrian refugees as the biggest problem facing Turkey. Only the economy and unemployment ranked higher.
But a Turkish military operation into Syria against the YPG puts Ankara on a collision course with the U.S.
While U.S. President Donald Trump is claiming victory over Islamic State and withdrawing U.S. forces in Syria, he says the security of its Kurdish allies needs to be assured.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underlined the message this month to his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“[U.S.] Secretary of [State Mike] Pompeo reiterated the commitment of the United States to addressing Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border, while emphasizing the importance that the United State places on the protection of forces that worked with the United States and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” read the U.S. readout of a telephone conversation between Pompeo and Cavusolgu.
Safe zone sticking points
Washington’s backing of the YPG has poisoned relations with its Turkish NATO ally. But Erdogan welcomes Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria and claims common ground exists on the creation of a safe zone in Syria.
Trump proposed to Erdogan a Syrian safe zone to protect Turkey’s border and the YPG. However, analysts point out there is still no consensus between the NATO allies on who will control and administer the zone.
“Americans won’t leave the area without any concrete protection plan or safe haven for the Kurds,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “I think the Turkish military operation will not be the case in the foreseeable future. Turkey must talk to the Americans and Russians as both support the Kurds, this is the dilemma facing Ankara.”
Last week, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. According to reports, Erdogan failed to secure Russian support for the creation of a Syrian safe zone.
Analysts suggest Putin is using the threat of a Turkish strike against the YPG to persuade the militia to make a deal with Damascus. Talks between the YPG and its political wing, the PYD, and the Syrian regime were held this month.
Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen who served widely in the region says Ankara may not be unduly concerned by talks between the Syrian regime and YPG.
“Ankara is happy to live with a potential situation of Damascus authority extending to the Turkish frontier replacing the PYD or YPG along the frontier,” Selcen said. “It’s a second best option for Ankara to a military cross-border operation for the time being.”
International relations professor Bagci goes further, saying a Damascus deal with the militia maybe the best-case scenario for Ankara, given the Turkish economy is facing recession and growing budget deficit.
“If they [Turkey] intervene in northern Syria, how long will it be for? One day, one week, one month, one year? Under these economic conditions, can Turkey afford $30 or $40 million a day? No,” Bagci said.