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Though Technically Postponed, Analysts Believe Turkish Offensive Against Kurds In Syria Inevitable

By Kristina Jovanovski | The Media Line

December 23, 2018

A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter holds a position in the village of Tal Malid in the north of Aleppo province last week. (Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ankara will likely wait for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war-torn country to begin its planned military campaign against American-allied Kurdish YPG fighters

The United States’ decision to pull its soldiers out of Syria will increase the likelihood of an Turkish military offensive against Kurdish forces, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement last week that the campaign will be delayed, analysts told The Media Line.

In a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan said he will wait to launch the operation until he holds a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump and monitors developments “on the ground.”

“We have postponed our military operation east of the Euphrates River [into Syria] until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.” The Turkish president had earlier stated that Turkey was planning an imminent offensive against Kurdish fighters in the war-torn country.

Washington’s alliance with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been a key obstacle in relations between the U.S. and Turkey. Ankara has long claimed the group is linked to the Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union classify as a terrorist organization.

Earlier this year, the U.S. and Turkish militaries agreed on the need for joint patrols around the town of Manbij, Syria, with the aim of removing Kurdish forces from the city, but Ankara has complained that Washington has been being slow to implement the plan.

Simon Waldman, a Middle East analyst at the Istanbul Policy Center, told The Media Line that it makes strategic sense for Erdogan to wait on an offensive until after U.S. troops depart.

“The U.S. move has made such an offensive inevitable,” Waldman said.

It is not Ankara’s goal to maintain long-term control over Syrian territory, he explained, adding that Turkey primarily hopes to increase its economic clout by injecting Turkish products into the Syrian market. That happened in the Afrin region in western Syria where Turkish forces launched an offensive earlier in this year to remove Kurdish militias ensconced there.

“A U.S. troop withdrawal will help Ankara expand such influence, and Turkey is in prime position to fill the void,” Waldman concluded.

Max Hoffman, Associate Director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, agreed that the U.S. disengagement will greatly increase the chances of Turkey intervening in Syrian territory to fight YPG forces.

“When the U.S. pullout is complete, the Turks will no longer have to contend with the very real possibility that they would hit U.S. or coalition personnel and precipitate a major crisis,” he told The Media Line. “This all comes when the Turkish military is hugely over-extended, with active fronts in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, the Euphrates Shield zone and Afrin.”

Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country would continue to fight the PKK in Iraq – which Ankara contends is connected to Kurdish forces in Syria that are backed by the U.S. That same week, Turkey claimed it killed eight PKK fighters in Iraq, drawing a rebuke from Baghdad that Ankara was violating Iraqi sovereignty.

Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and former parliamentarian with the main Turkish opposition party, told The Media Line that Erdogan has a political motivation to launch an offensive against the Kurds as his party faces municipal elections across the country in March.

“Erdogan does need a rally-around-the-flag effect, which a cross-border operation would provide,” Erdemir asserted.

Such an incursion would allow Erdogan to further cultivate his image as a strong global leader, but in the long run the U.S. withdrawal could pose significant threats to Turkey, he explained. For one, it will likely lead to a greater presence of Russian and Iranian forces in Syria, which have offered vital support to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Turkey significantly relies on both the Islamic Republic and Russia to supply its energy needs.

Erdogan has worked diligently to improve relations with Moscow, including the construction of a pipeline that transports Russian gas to Europe, Erdemir added.

“However, Russia, which is expanding its influence in region should be seen as a great risk to Erdogan’s ambitions. The nuclear power maintains a permanent Security Council seat and has a history of working against Turkish interests.”

The U.S. withdrawal from Syria also leaves Turkey vulnerable as it creates a power vacuum that could potentially be filled by jihadists, he explained. While ISIS’ territory has been greatly reduced, the UN estimates that many of its hardened fighters – numbering into the tens of thousands – still remain in Iraq and Syria.

“Any prudent Turkish politician must be wary about this always explosive [threat],” Erdemir concluded.

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