The date is not yet known, but the Turkish authorities have left little doubt this Monday that the Turkish army is about to go on the offensive to take control of a wide strip in northeastern Syria, until now dominated by Kurdish militias.
“We can enter suddenly at night, because we cannot accept the threat of terrorist organizations against our country,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, moments before embarking on an official trip to Serbia.
The warning is not new, but for the first time it has become credible, as US President Donald Trump announced this morning his decision to withdraw his troops from Syria and not to interfere in a Turkish operation.
With this, Washington puts an end to the alliance with the Popular Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militias that dominate northern Syria between the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border.
Until now, the YPG, the backbone of a grouping of local militias fighting under the name of “Democratic Syrian Forces” (FSD), was the United States’ main asset in the fight against the Jihadist group Islamic State (EI).
But Ankara has always considered the YPG a terrorist group because of its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish guerrilla active in Turkey and has been promising for years that they will “eradicate” it from Syria.
In recent months, Erdogan has insisted that Turkish troops must control a strip adjacent to the Syrian border 32 kilometres wide and 480 kilometres long, from the Euphrates to Iraq.
Turkish troops already dominate the northwest of the country, from operation “Euphrates Shield” in 2016, which expelled the EI from the areas north of Aleppo, and “Olive Branch” in 2018, which conquered the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, in the far northwest.
Last month, U.S. and Turkish troops conducted several joint ground and air patrols in the YPG-dominated area, but last month, Erdogan said these rounds “were fairy tales” and put an end to a takeover coordinated with the U.S. military.
Following today’s confirmation of the US withdrawal, several senior Turkish officials have reiterated on Twitter the motivation for the planned operation, thereby denying Ankara any interest in separating this Syrian region from the rest of the country.
“We supported the territorial integrity of Syria from the beginning of the crisis and we will continue to do so. We will ensure Turkey’s survival and security by cleaning up the terrorist zone,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu.
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Turkish Presidency, said that “the safe zone will have two objectives: to protect Turkey’s border by eliminating terrorist elements and to allow refugees to return to their homes”.
“Turkey supports Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity. It has no interest in occupying or changing the demographics” of the neighboring country, he added.
Kalin was thus in step with criticisms of Erdogan’s plans to use the ‘security strip’ to settle up to two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently hosted in Turkey.
Erdogan has repeatedly detailed his plans to build on the strip, until now a majority Kurdish population, about 140 housing developments for 5,000 people each and another ten for 30,000, with educational, sports and religious facilities.
Iran’s own President Hasan Rohaní had already criticised these plans during the tripartite summit held in Ankara last month and reminded his host that “refugees want to return to their own home, to their own people”.
Nearly all Syrian refugees in Turkey, almost all of them Arabic-speaking, come from regions other than the Kurdish northeast where Ankara now plans to intervene, so it is doubtful how they would welcome the idea of a “return” to the new housing developments promised by the Turkish ruler.
Kalin accused the YPG in his tweet of having changed the demography in the area, referring to the combats against jihadist militias as a result of which the Kurdish group occupied a compact strip throughout northeastern Syria.
“It is time to correct this. Turkey is fighting a terrorist group that has also killed and oppressed the Kurds,” Kalin said in his message, adding that “Turkey will also continue to fight” against the Islamic state” and will not allow it to return in any form.