The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is threatening to launch a military operation in the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. The U.S. is deeply concerned about these plans and has urgently sent a military delegation to continue negotiations. In case Turkey decides to undertake the offensive operation, the U.S. might lose its diplomatic position among the Kurds, which is crucial in its efforts to prevent the regime from expanding into eastern Syria. The U.S. policies, however, are unsettling Russia.
"We entered Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab. Now we will enter the [area] east of the Euphrates. We shared this [information] with Russia and the U.S.,” President Erdogan announced on Sunday, recalling the past military operations against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Units in 2016-2018, whom Ankara labels terrorists and accuses of cooperating with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. In mid-June, Ankara started a military buildup on its border with Syria.
Immediately after the announcement, the U.S. sent a Defense Department delegation to prevent the military offensive. The most feasible way to prevent further escalation is to establish “a safe zone” on the border between Turkey and Syria. Two weeks ago, the negotiations between the U.S. and Turkey failed. Yesterday’s consultations did not produce satisfying results either and will resume next Tuesday.
Turkey wants to establish a 32 km (20 mile)-deep safe zone in the region under its total control.
According to Ankara, the zone will allow the 3 million refugees who are now in Turkey to return home. Furthermore, Turkey demands that the U.S. withdraw the Kurdish forces from the border between Turkey and Syria and remove the weapons it had provided for fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The People’s Protection Units, however, remain a principal U.S. ally in fighting the Islamic State group in the region, and right now they are guarding captured Islamic State group fighters and their families. According to The Washington Post, the U.S. is ready to accept a 14 km-deep (approximately 8.7 mile) safe zone under the control of the U.S.-Turkey joint military forces.
Turkey announced that if the two countries do not reach a compromise, it would unilaterally establish a safe zone. Ankara has also been talking about attacking the Kurdish forces on the eastern bank of the Euphrates for about a year now. The Turkish forces invaded Syria in October, but they stopped the operation, fearing a potential U.S. response. President Donald Trump asserted that the U.S. would “devastate Turkey economically” if Ankara decided to launch an attack. After that, the U.S. and Turkey started negotiations on creating a safe zone; however, after almost seven months of talks, they have not yet reached a compromise.
The tensions between the U.S. and Turkey escalated after Turkey decided to buy Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. Washington responded by removing Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet production program and threatening Ankara with sanctions. Neither side however, is willing to exacerbate the current situation. “The disagreement over the S-400 missile system with the U.S. has gone a bit too far. The U.S. does not have to link this issue with Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program and impose sanctions against us. U.S. President Donald Trump understands this best of all,” said Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Monday. He asserted that the U.S. should stop its cooperation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Syria and support Turkey in its fight against the FETO* organization, which Ankara accuses of attempting to overthrow the regime in 2016.
“It is hard to believe that Turkey will launch a full-fledged military operation against the Kurds because they know that the U.S. and European forces are stationed there. It looks like Ankara is trying to get more leverage in forthcoming negotiations,” Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Kommersant.
At the same time, Ankara should be concerned about pushing the matter too far.
"If Turkey expands its military presence in Syria, Trump will have no choice but to impose sanctions against it, and the anti-Turkish sentiments in the U.S. will gain more power,” suggested Oytun Orhan of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Ankara. According to Orhan, these concerns will make the Turkish government postpone the military operation, but not for long. “It is a priority for Turkey to eradicate both the People’s Protection Units and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and it is willing to pay any price,” he stressed. He added that Turkey might launch a small-scale military operation close to the Syrian border. If that happens, the next question is going to be whether Washington is going to attack Turkish military forces to protect the Kurds. According to The Washington Post, if President Trump decided to do so, he would not have the support of Congress.
At the same time, Washington does not want to lose its alliance with the Kurds, because it fears they might start cooperating with Damascus and let the Syrian government reclaim the eastern territories. Russia has said that it will support the rights of the Kurdish people in Syria only in this case. However, right now Russia is more preoccupied with the Idlib deescalation zone, where military operations resumed three days after a ceasefire was announced. According to experts, if Ankara does not intervene in Russian-Syrian joint military operations in Idlib, Russia will probably turn a blind eye to Turkey’s invasion.
*Editor’s note: FETO stands for Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, the Turkish government’s name for the Gulen movement, which is inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar living in the U.S. since 1999.