ANKARA: Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent comments that Syria’s Tel Rifaat and Manbij have become hotbeds of terror, eyes are on Turkey’s long-speculated cross-border military operation into these areas against Kurdish fighters.
Although experts say Turkey does not seem to have received a green light for a specific military operation from Russia and Iran following the trilateral summit in Tehran on Tuesday, Ankara warned that it did not need permission to launch an offensive in Syria.
“We exchanged ideas, but we never asked and we never seek consent for our military operations,” Cavusoglu said in a televised interview on Thursday.
Ankara has long hinted at a possible offensive in northeast Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. It sees Kurdish forces in Syria as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
“The time has come to clear these ports where the terrorist organization took refuge,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.
For the last five years, Turkey, Iran and Russia have been searching for a political solution to the Syrian conflict through trilateral talks. Before the end of the year, they are also expected to meet in Russia.
Both Russia and Iran have explicitly opposed Ankara’s plans for a fresh military operation against Kurdish-held areas, and have urged a diplomatic solution.
Iran recently deployed military reinforcements to the two Shiite settlements northwest of Aleppo, while Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei told Erdogan during the meeting in Tehran that any military action would be “to the detriment of Syria, Turkey and the region” and could fuel terrorism.
Moscow is also the major ally of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. Syrian Kurds recently called on Russia and Iran to prevent any Turkish military operation.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Putin said “the area to the east of the Euphrates should return under the control of the legitimate government of Syria.”
Erdogan spoke to reporters on his return flight from Tehran on Tuesday, and said that the three countries, despite having divergent views on Syria, were united in counterterrorism efforts.
They “expressed their determination to continue working together to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations,” according to a joint statement.
Hamidreza Azizi, CATS fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, does not see Erdogan’s statement necessarily as an of indicator of an accord over an eventual operation.
“It seems that despite all efforts, Iran and Russia on the one hand and Turkey on the other hand are still far from an actual agreement about how to deal with the immediate issues in northern Syria,” he told Arab News.
“The Iranian side is overemphasizing on the eastern Euphrates, while Turkish side is still raising this idea of including Tal Rifat and Manbij in the new operation,” said Azizi.
“There is a kind of disagreement about the actual geography of the potential Turkish operation.”
There are currently two scenarios, Azizi believes.
“In one scenario, the sides cannot initiate a compromise between the Syrian regime and Turkey.
“In this case, Turkey can prepare for such an operation regardless of the Russian or Iranian positions. Or Turkey can raise the cost in terms of a potential compromise to somehow not show softness on its position in order to push (the) Syrian regime and its allies to take into account Turkish concerns.
“In that scenario, a new Turkish operation to those areas in the west (of the) Euphrates can be avoided in exchange of actual restrictions on the activities of Kurdish militia,” he said.
Erdogan also told reporters on the plane back to Ankara that “America has to leave (the) east of the Euphrates now. This is an outcome that came out of the Astana process.”
But Washington, although recognizing Turkey’s security concerns along its border, believes that any weakening of the Kurdish-led SDF forces might help Daesh to expand its presence.
Turkey has launched three invasions into Syria since 2016 in order to establish a 30 kilometer security zone free of Kurdish fighters.
Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said the recent talks in Tehran decreased the possibility of a Turkish operation.
“In contrary with the previous bilateral talks between Turkey and Russia to coordinate their moves in Syria, this time Russia also involved Iran into the game in order to balance regional interests and block Turkish moves,” he told Arab News.
Following the summit in Tehran, Orhan noted that Turkey might have to revise its plans in Syria for a while without completely dismissing them.
“In 2020, Turkey used drone strikes in Idlib where Russia has aerial superiority. Therefore, it can also enjoy its drone capacity under conditions where Russia doesn’t allow to fly Turkish jets. But it is a long process where tensions might escalate in the near future to prepare the ground,” he said.
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, thinks that Iran has positioned itself as a forum for de-escalation by hosting talks in Tehran between Russia and Turkey, and Russia has reportedly used backchannel diplomacy with Ankara to deter a military campaign.
“A Turkish offensive in northern Syria is not an unambiguous setback for Russian and Iranian interests, as it would strengthen the informal alignment that is developing between the Kurdish YPG, Syrian army and even some Iranian-aligned militias. This would help Assad consolidate his long-term grip on power,” he told Arab News.