Erdogan: Turkey will ‘cleanse’ Syrian towns of terrorists
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week announced "a new phase" of military operations to create a 19-mile "safe zone" into Syria "to cleanse Tal Rifaat and Manbij of terrorists."
And he may not stop there, adding that "we will do the same to other regions step by step."
Syrian Kurdish groups aligned with the United States, which Turkey considers terrorists, operate in both towns.
"Though the president has mentioned Ankara’s plans to form a safe zone alongside the Syrian border before, this is the first time he has explicitly included Manbij and Tal Rifaat in Turkey’s new operation and openly stated Ankara’s intention to expand to other regions," writes Nazlan Ertan. "The Turkish president is putting an old plan back on the table amid what he considers more favorable conditions with the war in Ukraine and Turkey’s veto power over the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO."
So far, the US-led coalition has seen little troop movement on the Turkish side that would indicate an imminent incursion, two sources briefed on the matter told Jared Szuba for Al-Monitor's Security Briefing newsletter.
There is still speculation that Turkey may be holding off until after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visits Turkey on June 8, and likely won’t launch an operation, if it eventually decides to do so, until after the NATO summit on June 28.
NATO bids by Sweden, Finland linked to changes on Kurds
Although the Biden administration may be seeking to keep down the temperature in its response to Erdogan’s hard line, the Turkish president is not letting up on his position.
To the contrary. Speaking to Justice and Development Party leaders on June 1, Erdogan dug in his opposition to NATO bids by Sweden and Finland until they "act accordingly" with respect to Turkey’s concerns.
He said that on the same day the Swedish and Finnish delegations were in Turkey for negotiations, "the Swedish state TV aired an interview with Salih Muslim [co-chairman of the Syrian Democratic Union, PYD]. What kind of sincerity is that? Those, who play with letters and try to conceal and legitimize the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] by changing its name into PYD, YPG [People’s Protection Units] or other acronyms are fooling themselves, not us.”
Erdogan considers the PYD and YPG, which make up the bulk of the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as indistinguishable from the PKK, which both Turkey and the US have designated as a terrorist group.
Erdogan added, "We have declared right away and in a clear manner that we are against their NATO membership because of their support to the PKK terrorist organization and its extension organizations. Those, who try to present the most bloodthirsty terrorist organization in the world as a disciple of democracy, are, in our eyes, aligned with the murderers of our babies, women, elder citizens, teachers and security forces, who were killed by the PKK."
The Turkish president’s only slight nod to diplomacy came at the end of his remarks, when he said, "We hope these two countries and those who work vigorously for their membership understand Turkey's security concerns and act accordingly. In that case, we as a country that have duly fulfilled its responsibilities within NATO so far will do our part.”
Stoltenberg: ‘No other NATO ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Turkey’
The US and NATO plan to keep their reservations about Turkish military actions in Syria separate from smoothing over differences which would allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO, as Al-Monitor reports here.
“These are separate questions,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded when asked about the connection between a potential fighter jet sales to Turkey and Ankara’s demands over Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, appearing at the same press conference with Blinken, said that "concerns that Turkey has raised directly with Finland and Sweden are being addressed by the Finns and the Swedes with the assistance of NATO. We want to make sure that all Allies have their security concerns taken into account, and that, of course, includes Turkey, but I’m confident this process will move forward."
While the US has stayed back from direct mediation in the matter, Stoltenberg has stepped up.
“No other NATO ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Turkey,” Stoltenberg said. “Turkey is an important ally, not least because of its strategic geographic location bordering Iraq and Syria … and also a Black Sea country close to Russia.” He added, “When they raise concerns, of course we sit down and we look into how we can find a united way forward.”
Erdogan weighs the consequences
If launching a military operation east of the Euphrates, "Turkey has to take both the United States and Russia into account," writes Fehim Tastekin. "But in Tel Rifaat and Manbij to the west of the river, the United States might turn a blind eye to Turkish maneuvers."
Blinken said on June 1 that the US would oppose any Turkish military escalation in Syria and respect existing ceasefire lines and not undermine regional stability, especially the fight against Islamic State.
The next day, Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement that “We hope that Ankara will refrain from actions that could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria,” but added that "such a move, in the absence of the agreement of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic, would be a direct violation of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity."
"For Erdogan, Tel Rifaat is a target promising a number of practical gains. It is a convenient position to keep northern Aleppo under pressure," writes Tastekin. "At present, YPG control of the area cuts off the connection between the rebel forces in northern Aleppo and Idlib. By seizing Tel Rifaat, Turkey would be able to block fully the YPG’s access to Afrin, keep Syrian government forces in northern Aleppo under pressure and pave the way for cooperation between rebel groups in the Aleppo countryside and Idlib."
"The conjuncture has domestic aspects as well," adds Tastekin. "Under growing pressure over Turkey’s hosting of millions of Syrian refugees, Erdogan is drawing a link between the incursion plan and the goal of repatriating the refugees, while diluting the public’s focus on the country’s deepening economic woes. To drum up popular support, he argues that a military operation would provide a safe space for refugees to return."