President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is issuing dire warnings of an imminent military operation into northern Syria by the Turkish army, east of the Euphrates River.
He says the plan is to root out and destroy Kurdish YPG fighters in the region, who are linked to the outlawed PKK, and who happen to also be allies of the U.S. military.
Erdogan’s language is focused and decided. It is also harsh and clearly targets Washington. He sounds confident about the outcome of the operation – whose code name we are yet to learn – which will, reportedly, also include thousands of Turkish backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters.
The previous successful “Euphrates Shield” and “Olive Branch” operations by Turkey in northern Syria have undoubtedly emboldened Erdogan as well as the Turkish high command.
The operation that is being talked about now, however, is going to have an unavoidable effect on Turkish-U.S. ties.
Washington was not happy about Turkey’s previous operations, but turned a blind eye in the end because these did not pose a serious obstacle to its interests in the region.
There are differing opinions as to how Washington will react this time, but what is clear to all is that the stakes are higher for it now than they were during Turkey’s previous military incursions into northern Syria.
Erdogan says that the Turkish military’s target in the new operation will not be the American military presence in the region, but terrorists – in other words the YPG.
He has acknowledged, however, that U.S. has 22 military bases in the region where the Turkish military plans to conduct its operation. The U.S. military is deployed in these bases together with fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is made up mostly of YPG fighters.
Erdogan may say they will not target the U.S. military, but it is not clear how the Turkish army and FSA fighters are going to weed out the YPG from among American marines.
Read from another perspective, Erdogan’s remarks could be taken as an indication that there might by a standoff between Turkish and U.S. forces. Ankara must also have factored in this possibility into its military plans.
The Pentagon’s response to Erdogan was, not surprisingly, cool. It said ““unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as U.S. personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern. We would find any such actions unacceptable”
We have yet to year the White House and the State Department on the topic. Nevertheless, the lines are being drawn by the sides and it looks like we could be heading for fresh tensions in Turkish-U.S. ties.
What is evident is that Washington has some hard thinking to do in the face of Erdogan’s resolute language. Ideally Ankara would like it to dump the YPG, but that appears highly unlikely.
It is, nevertheless, uncertain how the situation will unfold on the ground in northern Syria once Turkey starts its operation. What is clear, however, is that if Erdogan brings tangible results from this operation, he will have strengthened his hand enormously in the lead-up to the crucial local elections in March.