While all eyes are on Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems in a good position to take advantage of a geopolitical context favorable to his plans to launch a new military operation in northern Syria against the Kurdish militia Syrian YPG. Despite warnings from Washington, Ankara is specifically targeting Tell Rifaat and Manbij, two localities west of the Euphrates. Decryption.
For several weeks now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been brandishing the threat of a new military operation in northern Syria, along the border with Turkey.
“We are working meticulously on new operations to fill the gaps in our security line at our southern borders,” he repeated before the leaders of his party, the AKP, on June 4 in Ankara.
“We are going to clean up Tell Rifaat and Manbij”, two localities located west of the Euphrates, he announced at the beginning of the month before Parliament, before promising to proceed “step by step in other regions”.
In Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sights are therefore once again the territories controlled by Kurdish forces, precisely by the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Supported and armed by the American army, they made up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Arab-Kurdish alliance, which had fought, with the support of the international coalition led by Washington, the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) organization.
Except that Turkey describes the YPG and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Syrian Kurdish party, as “terrorists” and accuses them of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This Kurdish movement, listed as a terrorist by Ankara, but also by the United States or the European Union, has been leading a guerrilla war in Turkey since 1984.
“Replace the Kurds with Arab populations”
“Erdogan’s threats against the Kurds must always be taken seriously, explains Fabrice Balanche, lecturer at Lyon-II University, specialist in Syria, and associate researcher at the Washington Institute. Officially, his objective is to eliminate the PKK and everything associated with it, but it is above all the Kurdish presence in this part of Syrian territory that is targeted”.
The Kurdish minority in Syria had de facto established an embryo state in the north and north-east of the country thanks to the conflict and the weakening of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, by establishing, in March 2016, an autonomous federal region in areas abandoned by Syrian troops in 2012, called Rojava. A gesture from Damascus supposed to convince the Kurds at the time not to join the ranks of the rebellion.
However, Ankara rejects any desire for Kurdish autonomy off its borders, perceived as a threat to its territorial integrity, and fears that military bases and training camps in the hands of the Kurds will ultimately benefit the PKK. This is why Recep Tayyip Erdogan intends to create a buffer zone 480 kilometers long and about 30 kilometers wide between the Turkish border and the Syrian territories located east of the Euphrates river.
“Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Ankara has displayed its total opposition to such an idea and launched several offensives in the region, continues Fabrice Balanche. The objective is always the same: to replace the Kurds with Arab populations displaced by the conflict. and by pro-Turkish local militias loyal to Turkish interests in order to constitute an Arab belt, a kind of anti-Kurdish buffer zone, in northern Syria”.
“Eventually, he adds, given that the Turks have already created the Syrian National Army (SNA), which brings together Islamist militias and has around 70,000 men, the territories taken from the Kurds could proclaim themselves a Republic of northern Syria, such as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)”.
The Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974, following the Turkish invasion, between the Republic of Cyprus – a member of the European Union – and the self-proclaimed TRNC in 1983 and only recognized by Ankara.
Erdogan “believes this is the right timing to go back on the offensive”
Since 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered several offensives in northern Syria, one of which, in March 2018, enabled his troops and their auxiliaries, Syrian Islamist rebels, to get their hands on Afrin. Either one of the three cantons of the Kurdish autonomous zone which corresponds to the Syrian province of Hassaké. The latest military operation, launched in October 2019, targeted Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, two localities near the border, and caused the displacement of tens of thousands of people.
The threat of a new offensive comes at a time when all eyes are on Ukraine, which is resisting the Russian invasion as much as possible. A geopolitical “momentum” that the Turkish president does not want to miss.
“Believing that this is the right time to go back on the offensive in Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to take advantage of the situation since Westerners are focused on the war in Ukraine and on Russia, which is at the center of their concerns, says Fabrice Balanche. In a way, he asks Westerners what their priority is: to thwart the Kremlin’s plans in Europe or to support the PKK? Presented like that, obviously, his calculation cannot be a loser.”
“We hope that none of our true allies will oppose our legitimate concerns,” said the Turkish head of state on June 9 from Izmir (west), where he was attending military maneuvers.
“Erdogan’s calculation can even certainly be a winner, believes Fabrice Balanche, since we remember that the Turks, with their modern army and their air and technological superiority, had succeeded in driving out, in three months, the YPG from the city of Afrin, located in the mountainous stronghold of the Kurds which they thought could not be lost”.
In 2019, Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad were taken in a single month. “The Turks could have even gone further if there had not been Russian mediation and a ceasefire, recalls the Syria specialist. If Recep Tayyip Erdogan decides to launch an offensive against Kobané or Manbij, where the population is 85% Arab, he will easily achieve the same result”.
American warning, Russian tacit agreement
It therefore seems that nothing can prevent the Turkish president from achieving his goals, despite American warnings against “any new offensive that would undermine regional stability”.
“We oppose any escalation in northern Syria and we support maintaining the current ceasefire lines,” Antony Blinken said at a press conference in Washington in early June.
“The Americans have protested and will protest even more if Turkey takes action against the Kurds whom they promised to protect, but they do not have the means to prevent it, explains Fabrice Balanche. The Biden administration may possibly take sanctions against Ankara except that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has far too many sensitive cards in his hands, starting with his ability to block NATO”.
Like Washington, once is not custom, neither the Iranians, nor the regime of Bashar al-Assad and nor his Russian godfather are very keen to see the Turks monopolize parts of Syrian territory.
“The Iranians have set red lines, namely not to touch Shiite localities, nor Aleppo, while Bashar al-Assad’s army is not in a position to oppose the Turkish military machine, decrypts Fabrice Balanche. And despite appearances, the Russians are not really opposed to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans, since the Kurds refuse to return under the banner of the Syrian regime, and therefore under Russian protection”.
It must also be said that at a time when the Western powers are all up against Russia, Moscow has no need to deteriorate its more than cordial relations with Turkey, NATO’s free electron.
During his visit to Ankara on June 8, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov showed great understanding of what he called Turkish “concerns”, whereas a few days earlier the Russian diplomacy had said, in a press release, “hope that Ankara will refrain from actions which could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria”.
“We fully understand the concerns of our friends about the threats created at their borders by outside forces that fuel separatist sentiment in territories controlled by US units illegally staying there,” did he declarewithout this time commenting on the territorial integrity of Syria…
Once again with their backs to the wall, the Kurds, released by Donald Trump in December 2018, are in no doubt about the outcome of a new Turkish offensive. “They are quite resigned, and no longer believe in the political project of autonomy, the Turkish offensive of 2019 having quite dampened their hopes, since they saw that the Westerners, despite their promises, did not come to support them, summarizes Fabrice Balanche. They therefore expect a new Turkish operation and know that they will not be able to hold out for long and that no one will come to their aid”.
Tayyip Recep Erdogan knows it too. In August 2019, he warned that “as long as the [zones contrôlées par les YPG] will not have disappeared, Turkey will not feel safe”.