Turkey primed to start offensive against US-backed Kurds in Syria
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has said that Turkey will launch a military operation against the Kurds in northern Syria within days, in a decision that could signal a shift in Turkish-US relations and have far-reaching consequences for Syria’s future.
Long frustrated by US support for Kurdish militias that Turkey views as terrorists, Erdoğan has threatened to push deeper into north-eastern Syria since sending Turkish forces into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in February.
The president said during a televised speech in Ankara on Wednesday that the operation was imminent. “We will begin our operation to free the east of the Euphrates [river] from the separatist organisation within a few days,” he told MPs. “Our target is not the American soldiers – it is the terror organisations that are active in the region.”
Erdoğan also expressed disappointment that US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria had not left the town of Manbij, as agreed in a US-Turkish deal brokered this year. “The Americans are not being honest; they are still not removing terrorists [from Manbij],” he said. “Therefore, we will do it.”
Ankara has repeatedly said that Turkey will do what is necessary to protect its security, but has not yet attempted to cross the river, on the eastern bank of which 2,000 US troops are stationed. On Wednesday, a Pentagon spokesman said that any such move would be “unacceptable”.
President Erdoğan announcing a military operation to drive out US-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. Photograph: AP
“Unilateral military action into north-east Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable,” said Cmdr Sean Robertson.
The Kurdish YPG military was the target of February’s Operation Olive Branch: the border town of Afrin was emptied of Kurds and Arab proxy forces installed as custodians.
Rojava, the area east of the river, has remained more problematic for Turkish leaders, who have prioritised curbing Kurdish ambitions ahead of all other elements in the Syrian war, including the international campaign against Islamic State.
The YPG and its backers, the militant PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, are entrenched in Rojava and have been prominent partners in the US-led fight against Isis, managing to confine the militants to pockets of the frontier with Iraq.
With Isis ousted from much of the north-east, the US’s Syria policy has switched focus to other concerns, primarily preventing Iran from capitalising on any power vacuum in a strategically vital corner of the region.
Paramount for Turkey is countering any claims by the Kurds for autonomy and stopping any momentum stemming from their successful campaign against Isis, which it fears may amplify the Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders.
Washington and Ankara have been at odds throughout the US partnership with the Kurds, and Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to send his forces to confront its Nato ally.
Ties have been further strained by Donald Trump’s firm backing of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Turkey accuses of ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The US president has been exploring ways to placate his Turkish counterpart, and Erdoğan’s claim on Wednesday that US forces in Rojava are not seen as hostile suggests an accommodation may have been reached.
Last month, the US Department of State put bounties on the heads of three senior PKK leaders, despite partnering with the group in Syria. The move was seen as a gesture to Turkey, which has long viewed the organisation as a terrorist group.
Erdoğan called on the US on Wednesday not to allow deep disagreements over their Syria policy to impede future cooperation between the two countries.
Residents of Kurdish towns east of the Euphrates have been bracing themselves for a Turkish attack after several months of shelling and cross-border fire that has killed several civilians.