Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis
Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

At the end of last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that his country would soon launch a new military operation into northern Syria which he said would target Kurdish “terrorists”.

“We are taking another step in establishing a 30-kilometre security zone along our southern border. We will clean up Tal Rifaat and Manbij”, he said.

For a week now, Turkey’s leader has been threatening to launch an operation against fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

He is also targeting the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish group it considers to be part of the PKK.

As the discussion over Turkey’s estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees continues in the nation, Erdogan also declared last month that Turkey will construct infrastructure in northern Syria to house one million Syrian refugees.

The new military operation will have multiple political benefits for the ruling party. This will increase the number of votes from the southeastern provinces and from the right wing that supports the government. Investments and refugee resettlement programs will also create new jobs and decongest Turkish cities.

President Erdogan recently announced a reconstruction plan to enable Syrians to return to their homeland. Both Manbij and Tal Rifaat are located close to Turkey’s border with Syria and are home to sizable Kurdish populations. Erdogan would be able to strengthen and broaden the so-called “safe zone” along the border, where Ankara plans to place Syrian refugees.

The aim is to take control of the remaining 458-kilometer-long strip of land between the region of Afrin, taken over by the Turks in 2018, and the town of Kamisli in the east, where the Russian army has an air base. Nearly one-third of Syria’s area is still under SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) control, despite three military operations and significant military deployments by Turkey.

While Turkey continues to carry out targeted drone operations against the SDF, it needs to launch another significant ground operation to overthrow the SDF’s rule in these areas.

According to estimates from the United Nations, the Turkish operation in 2018 resulted in the displacement of more than 100,000 people from the town of Afrin alone. Most of the people went east to Tal Rifaat.

Syria’s major Kurdish militia, the People’s Defense Units, also known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Syriac Military Council, an Assyrian militia, is a close ally of the YPG, which is made up primarily of ethnic Kurds but also of Arabs and foreign volunteers. In 2011, the YPG was established.

During the Syrian Civil War, it rapidly grew and eventually surpassed other armed Syrian Kurdish organizations. They battle alongside a sister militia known as the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The YPG is active in the Kurdish areas of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava).

Instead of chasing PKK militants inside the country, Turkey has gone from being defen­sive to offensive and now aims to create area control beyond its southern border to prevent the massing of PKK forces near its territory. This overall strategy was im­plemented in different ways in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, Turkey launched three military operations in Syria (in 2016, 2018, and 2019) with the express purpose of preventing the formation of politically independent districts along the Turkish border controlled by YPG militants.

“We are meticulously working on new operations to fill the gaps in our security line on our southern borders,” Erdogan told lawmakers of his AKP party earlier this month.

In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, Syria’s Kurdish minority had a de facto embryonic state in the north and northeast of the country as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad weakened the Damascus regime. Ankara rejects the slightest hint of Kurdish autonomy near its borders, perceiving it as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

within the SDF, the YPG remains the main fighting force. Turkey considers this name change to be a bogus attempt to cover up the PKK. Turkey attempts to defend its cross-border operations as acts of self-defense based on this perception. A military operation by Ankara would hamper attempts to defeat ISIS members in northeastern Syria, according to the SDF.

Since 2016, the Turkish military has made three significant incursions into northern Syria, seizing control of territory close to the border in what Ankara claims is an effort to protect its frontier from dangers posed by the YPG and ISIS.

 

 

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