ANKARA: Turkey will launch a military operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria "within a few days," Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told politicians in Ankara on Wednesday.
“It is time to go through with our decision to wipe out terror groups,” he said at the Turkish Defense Industry Summit. “Our target is never American soldiers, but rather, members of the US-backed, Kurdish YPG militia.”
Turkey considers the YPG’s presence along its border, which spans more than 700 km with Syria, a serious domestic security threat.
Erdogan’s statement came just days after Turkish Armed Forces ramped up military reinforcements to surround the region from both sides.
This will be Turkey’s third military cross-border operation in Syria since 2016, but it would be the first time Turkish troops have progressed towards the eastern side of the Euphrates.
The last operation, which was conducted in March, removed the YPG from the Syrian northwest border province of Afrin.
Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), an Ankara-based think tank, said a potential operation would take a fairly long time and would not cover a specific area, unlike the previous two Turkish operations in Syria.
Orhan said Turkey would likely establish a five to 10 km buffer zone along its border and would try to expand its zone of influence in other directions.
“Turkish armed forces will avoid any direct contact with US soldiers and will take into consideration the location of American bases and observation points by expecting in return that the US troops would not get closer to the Turkish operation zone,” he told Arab News.
American observation posts have been recently installed in northern Syria, allegedly to prevent clashes between Turkish army and the YPG. Ankara, however, sees this move as a “stalling tactic.”
“It is clear that US observation points in Syria are not there to protect our country from terrorists, but to protect terrorists from Turkey,” said Erdogan.
On the other hand, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently announced that about 40,000 local troops would be trained to “ensure stability” in northern Syria, a statement that seemed to have annoyed Ankara.
The US has no plans to evacuate the special operations troops currently operating and cooperating with the YPG in the region, which it considers a local partner in the fight against Daesh.
Orhan thinks that the US may prefer to stop the expansion of the military offensive by giving concessions on Manbij, another YPG-held province in the west of the Euphrates River in which US and Turkish troops have been conducting joint patrols since two months.
A deal that was brokered between the US and Turkey in June sought the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and the joint control of the city by Turkish and American troops.
The YPG has established a direct control in border towns of northern Syrian, such as Tal Abyad, Ain Al-Arab (Kobani), Al-Darbasiyah, Ras Al-Ain, Amuda and Al-Malikiyah.
“There are clear constraints on Turkish action, but Ankara will find a way if it really wants to go,” Aaron Stein, senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told Arab News.
“Ankara could narrow its goals, launch a small operation on the border, and not need continuous air support. Only time will tell.”
However, a military offensive against Kurdish stronghold of Kobane is not on the horizon, according to the experts.
However, military analysts emphasize the importance of aerial support for the success of any cross-border ground operation as the airspace of the region is under the control of the US-led coalition in Syria.
“It would be too risky and difficult to move on the ground without getting any aerial support. The lack of any permission for Turkish airstrikes would restrict the operational width,” Orhan said.
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired major now serving as a security analyst at Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV, said the military operations have various targets and that the main target of such an operation, whether a political or military one, will become clearer in the coming days.
“The next few days are of critical importance. Ankara calls on Washington to resolve this issue in a diplomatic way. If not a military operation is likely. It is all about a show of strength,” he told Arab News.
“If the depth of the military operation is about 10 to 15 km in, then aerial support would not be so crucial. However, Ankara would require aerial support to go 50 to 100 km in.”
During budget discussions in Turkish parliament in recent days, Vice President Fuat Oktay had already said that disrupting the terror corridor in the eastern bank of the Euphrates was “on Ankara’s agenda.”