Is Turkey gearing up for a new military offensive against Syria’s Kurds?

Analysis: Turkey has said that the Kurdish-led administration’s decision to hold elections is unacceptable, but is a military operation likely?

Turkey is once again using threatening language after the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) scheduled local elections for 11 June in the territories under its control.

Ankara said it is “closely following the aggressive actions by the terrorist organisation against the territorial integrity of our country and of Syria under the pretext of an election,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on 30 May.

“Turkey will never allow the separatist organisation to establish (a state) just beyond its southern borders in the north of Syria and Iraq,” he said, claiming their ultimate goal is the establishment of “a terroristan”.

Turkish Defence Minister Yasar Guler similarly charged that these elections “threaten the territorial integrity of Syria” and “will negatively affect peace and tranquillity in the region”. Turkey, he added, will not “allow any fait accompli that is to the detriment of our national security and the territorial integrity of our neighbours”.

Turkey views the leading party in northeast Syria, popularly known by its Kurdish name Rojava, as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), make up the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the leading US ally in Syria against the Islamic State (IS) for almost a decade.

Turkey launched two cross-border ground operations directed against the YPG and SDF in January 2018 and October 2019.

It’s unclear if another such operation is presently on the cards. Turkey has subjected the AANES territories to an intensified campaign of deadly drone strikes beginning last October, killing civilians and crippling the region’s already dilapidated water and electricity infrastructure.

"Turkey launched two cross-border ground operations directed against the YPG and SDF in January 2018 and October 2019" 

Amidst Erdogan and Guler’s latest declarations, Turkish drones targeted and killed four SDF fighters in Qamishli and injured two members of the Kurdish Asayish internal security forces in Kobani. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor estimates that Turkey has carried out at least 78 such strikes in AANES-administrated areas so far this year.

In September, Erdogan voiced support for Arab tribes in the eastern Deir az-Zour province after they violently clashed with the SDF. It’s unclear if Turkey might attempt to stir up simmering Arab-Kurdish tensions to destabilise and undermine the AANES and SDF.

“The situation in northeast Syria is in a dangerous inertia where the PYD is solidifying power across the Autonomous Administration at the same time that none of the region’s underlying issues in the relationship between Arabs and Kurds is being addressed,” Nicholas Heras, senior director of strategy and innovation at the New Lines Institute, told The New Arab.

“Turkey views these elections as another way in which the PKK, working through the PYD, is burrowing into the local population, which is complicating the US-Turkish detente in northeast Syria,” Heras said.

Aron Lund, a Syria expert and fellow with Century International, also noted that some areas where the AANES are holding elections experienced “serious ethnic and political unrest” in the recent past.

“For the ruling elites, it might be a question of having to re-staff institutions and fix a patronage and co-optation system that has been fraying of late,” Lund told TNA.

On the other hand, Turkey opposes anything resembling the “institutionalisation and solidification” of this Kurdish-led system of governance in northeast Syria.

“In practice, I think the Turks understand that the election is going to be a mostly symbolic affair and that it doesn’t particularly affect their security one way or another,” Lund said. “While having a mini-state run by PKK loyalists on the border is indisputably a huge security problem for Turkey, that’s not because the mini-state sometimes has internal elections,” he added.

“It’s worth noting that these areas have gone through with internal elections and other political events in the past.”

The US has already urged the AANES to postpone the vote, arguing that conditions are presently unsuitable for “free, fair, transparent and inclusive” elections. The US Embassy in Syria also advised the AANES “not to proceed with the elections at this time”. Nevertheless, the Kurdish-led authority said it will proceed as originally scheduled.

“The US views the status quo in northeast Syria as a desirable muddle through, which allows the local American personnel to fight ISIS and box out Iran in collaboration with the SDF while emphasising to Turkey that the US is not overseeing a generational gain in political power for the PKK in Syria,” Heras said.

“There is a significant gap in perceptions between the Americans and the PYD in northeast Syria, with the PYD viewing these elections as a necessary step to stabilise the political situation in the region, especially vis-a-vis the local Arab population,” he added.

"Turkey has subjected the AANES territories to an intensified campaign of deadly drone strikes since last October, killing civilians and crippling the region's already dilapidated water and electricity infrastructure" 

Lund pointed out that the US has “long demanded” that Kurdish rivals of the PYD, most notably the Kurdish National Council, which has relations with Ankara, be permitted to “work freely” in the AANES.

“In practice, that never happens,” he said. “They’re marginalised using administrative tricks, and if they make too much noise about it, they’re violently suppressed.”

Both analysts are sceptical that the recent statements from Turkey indicate another major cross-border operation into northeast Syria is brewing.

“Turkey has a clear interest in preventing the further entrenchment of the PYD via these elections,” Heras said. “But it is most likely that Turkish operations in northeast Syria will continue to be drone strikes against the SDF and the Autonomous Administration as a cost-efficient and low-risk method to pressure the Americans and undermine the PYD.”

Lund noted the recent Turkish denunciations of the elections were fairly vague.

“Erdogan brought up the elections in a speech, but he didn’t really make a direct threat to intervene. It was just the usual warlike rhetoric about not allowing what he calls a ‘terroristan’ on Turkey’s borders,” he said.

“There have been occasions when the leadership in Ankara has been extremely explicit about an upcoming invasion, saying it’s now inevitable and orders were already given,” he added. “But then, in the end, nothing happens.”

The Turkish president previously threatened another incursion into northeastern Syrian cities beginning in May 2022 that seemingly either did not materialise or was quietly shelved.

“In the coming months, there may or may not be escalation on the border with Syria, Iraq, or both. Hypothetically, we may see a massive ramping-up of drone strikes or even land invasions,” Lund said.

“But so far, I don’t really see anything out of the ordinary – just lazy sabre-rattling,” he added. “Whether it will escalate into a more serious crisis or not is anyone’s guess. Maybe Erdogan has a plan already, or maybe he’s just stirring the pot a little bit to see what options are available.”

Furthermore, the analyst believes that if Turkey does launch another cross-border offensive, it will most likely be for other reasons: when Ankara thinks the timing is right, or when the SDF’s foreign backers will likely step aside.

“I suppose making noise about the elections could provide political cover if there’s an intention to attack,” Lund said. “But the elections themselves are not enough of a concern to trigger a war.”

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