ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey was in no hurry to mount a new military operation against armed Kurdish militants.
However, regional players expressed concern about a possible Turkish offensive against the cities of Tal Rifaat and Manbij.
“There’s no need to rush. We don’t need to do this,” Erdogan told reporters in Madrid, where he met US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Erdogan offered no time frame for the planned operation.
The stakes are high. Experts say Turkey still does not have Russia’s support for a military intervention against Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a terrorist group with direct links to the People’s Party, Workers of Kurdistan (PKK). ).
Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said Russia’s refusal to support the operation remains its main obstacle.
“Ankara has decided to launch a military offensive in Syria while the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine – and after the withdrawal of thousands of Russian troops from Ukraine. However, Russia cannot risk looking weak in both Ukraine and Syria, giving the green light to a Turkish operation at this stage,” he told Arab News.
Orhan noted that Turkey only hit targets along the Turkish-Syrian border in retaliation for YPG attacks.
“I do not expect a larger operation in which the Syrian National Army would serve as a ground force and the Turkish military would provide air support,” he added.
Ankara has already carried out three military operations in the region: Euphrates Shield in 2016, Ramo de Oliveira in 2018 and Fonte da Paz in 2019.
The number of Russian and Syrian regime troops has increased in northern Syria since early June, anticipating a possible Turkish operation.
Iran has also been steadfast in its opposition to any Turkish military operations in the region.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saaed Khatibzadeh said recently: “The Syrian file is a matter of dispute between us and Turkey.”
On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister paid a visit to Damascus after Turkey’s threats to launch the new offensive.
“Ideologically and strategically, Iran attaches importance to protecting Shia areas – notably the two Shia cities of Nubl and Al-Zahra. There are also Shia militias fighting alongside the YPG in Tal Rifaat,” Orhan said.
“However, at this stage, Russia’s position is much more important to Turkey than Iran’s concerns, because Russia controls airspace in northern Syria and must withdraw Russian forces before moving forward. ‘Approve any operation Turkish’, he added.
Some experts have suggested that Turkey used its potential operation in Syria as a bargaining chip during its recent negotiations with Washington. During their June 29 meeting, Erdogan and Biden discussed the importance of maintaining stability in Syria, according to White House minutes.
The US-backed and mostly YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) still hold large swaths of northeastern Syria. Syrian Kurds are seen by Washington as an important ally against Daesh.
Separately, while the Biden administration has repeatedly said it recognizes Turkey’s security concerns, it has also warned that any Turkish operation in northern Syria could put US troops at risk and jeopardize the fight against Daesh.
Hamidreza Azizi, a researcher at the Center for Applied Studies in Turkey at the German Institute of International and Security Affairs, believes the Turkish operation is inevitable given the course of events.
“It will happen sooner or later. As Turkish leaders are maneuvering on what they see as threats facing Turkey from northern Syria, we have to expect some sort of military operation,” he told Arab News.
“But the scope of the operation has been the subject of speculation because at first the Turkish authorities were talking about a large area of Tal Rifaat and Manbij east of the Euphrates, but they changed their minds after American opposition to the expansion of the operation east of the Euphrates. ” said Azizi.
Azizi expects a limited operation to take place, the main objective of which would be to expand Turkey’s area of influence in the region.
Turkey’s original plan was to establish a 30-kilometer-deep safe zone along its southern border, both to repel the YPG and to repatriate around a million Syrian refugees to a wider safe zone.
President Erdogan recently announced a reconstruction plan to allow Syrians to return to their homeland.
Azizi believes that “the main point of contention” regarding this potential operation would be between Iran and Turkey.
“Iran is concerned that if Turkey – or Turkish-backed troops – controls Tal Rifaat, they will have access to Aleppo, where Iran is present, which will give them additional access to central Syria.”
Iran remains an important ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also an important trading partner for Turkey.
Unless Turkey is able to come up with a new plan to alleviate Iran’s concerns, Azizi expects a response from Iran’s side – albeit indirectly through proxy forces.
“Such a reaction could lead Turkey to further strengthen its ties with Arab states and cooperate more with Israel,” he said.