Is Erdogan playing with fire in northwest Syria?

Erdogan is back on the attack. Turkey’s president threatened on Monday to launch a ground offensive in northern Syria, an area held by the Syrian Kurds (YPG). “We have been flying the terrorists for several days with our planes and our drones. God willing, we will eliminate them soon with our soldiers, guns and tanks,” he said after making in strikes that killed 37, mostly Kurdish fighters, as well as 16 Syrian soldiers. Local Kurdish authorities also reported 11 civilian deaths.

Two Kurdish fighters were killed on Tuesday by a Turkish drone bombing targeting a joint base of Kurdish forces and the international anti-jihadist coalition, led by the United States. The actions taken in retaliation for the attack carried out in Istanbul on November 13, justified Ankara. If Turkey has already crossed the border with Syria, especially in 2020, this decision will bring the tensions between the Kurdish groups and Turkey to a “higher degree”, warns Ariane Bonzon, journalist specializing in Turkey and author of Turkey, the moment of truth (Empreinte Temps Present), contacted by 20 minutes. If the players on the ground, Russia and the United States, call for calm, can they really prevent Recep Tayyip Erdogan from acting?

Why are the Turks targeting Syria?

Contrary to what one might think, Turkey has nothing against the Damascus regime. What interests him is the Syrian fringe of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the YPG (People’s Protection Units). The PKK is registered in Ankara, and in many other countries including the United States, on the list of terrorist organizations. Turkey has claimed that the Kurdish organization in Syria is responsible for the attack in Istanbul that killed six people and injured 81 according to official reports. The PKK and the YPG for their part denied, in two separate press releases, their responsibility for the attack. Still, Recep Tayyip Erdogan intends to respond “to this evil attack that killed six innocent people, including children, by eliminating terrorist organizations in Iraq and northern Syria”.

When Turkish forces conduct ground operations in northwestern Syria, it is not the first time. They have already crossed the border in 2016 and 2017 with Operation Euphrates Shield, then in 2018 with Operation Olive Branch and finally, in 2019 with Operation Source of Peace. In 2020, the Turks are also in the Idlib region of northwestern Syria. In July, Erdogan again threatened a 10th offensive against Kurdish militants, before being stopped by Vladimir Putin, who did not want to support his counterpart, Arab News reported. But why are these operations performed? “To destroy the YPG,” said Ariane Bonzon. Turkey “wants to create a strip in Syria, a kind of buffer zone, officially to protect itself from Kurdish attacks”, he said. This area will also serve to “disrupt the Kurdish continuum in the area” and “may, in addition, allow Ankara to send Syrian refugees there”, he added. Many arguments will allow Erdogan to get points for the next presidential election scheduled for the end of spring 2023. In addition, the Turkish head of state is afraid of a Turkish-Kurdish front against him. “It is necessary to feed the anti-Kurdish nationalism”, analyzes the specialist.

Could the relationship between Ankara and Washington deteriorate further?

Cold has been blowing between Ankara and Washington since 2003, when Turkey denied access to its territory to the American army to invade Iraq. It got worse when the United States chose the Kurds in Syria to help them fight the jihadists of the Islamic State. “The trust gap is widening” between the two, summarizes Ariane Bonzon. An operation on the ground of Turkey in Syria could again worsen the relationship between these two NATO members, especially if “an American unit is hit by an attack in Turkey, points out the specialist in Turkey. This will create a real problem. Currently, the American military command for the Middle East (Centcom) told AFP that its forces are “not in danger” during the Turkish strike in northern Syria.

If the American people remain safe, the White House is unlikely to go beyond appeals for calm or diplomatic restraint. “We are calling for de-escalation in Syria to protect civilians and support the common goal of defeating the Islamic State,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday night. In response, Turkey demanded on Tuesday that the United States “stop all support” to YPG fighters, which it considers terrorists. In any case, Turkey cannot carry out a ground operation without “minimum coordination and information with Washington”, the two states that are members of NATO.

What role for Russia?

Russia is relatively at home in Syria. It has supported the Damascus regime against the revolution and armed groups since 2015 and bombed civilian infrastructure or refugee camps at all costs. Damascus did not react to the Turkish bombings or to the announcement of the ground operation. In fact, Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, “did what Russia and Iran told him to do”, sliced ​​Ariane Bonzon.

And so Moscow is also worried about this possible Turkish intervention in the north of the country. The Kremlin thus tried to call for “restraint” in the hope of convincing its “Turkish partners” to “refrain from the use of excessive force in the Syrian territory”, according to Alexander Lavrentiev, special envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria. Insisting on Russia’s efforts to prevent any operation on the ground “for months”, the special envoy called for “continuing to work with all stakeholders to find a peaceful solution, including Kurdish question”. But if Russia has no interest in Syria that is more destabilized than more than ten years of war, it will on the other hand benefit from the deterioration of relations between Turkey and the United States. “It always suited him that Turkey was doing things that the Americans didn’t want. Anything that weakened NATO and Europe was good for Moscow,” Ariane Bonzon recalled.

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