Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated on Wednesday, June 1, his country’s resolve to start a fresh invasion in northern Syria to create a so-called “safe zone” and wipe out “terrorism” there. According to Turkish media, Syrian opposition forces would support the Turkish invasion.
As per reports in the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) and other Kurdish backed-media organizations, Turkish forces are already shelling cities of Tel Tamar north of Hasaka and Manbij in northern Syria. According to a SANA report, Turkish shelling has already caused large-scale displacement and damage to civilian property in the region.
Turkish shelling was later confirmed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a press release on June 1. The SDF blamed “international silence” for the bold assertions made by the “Turkish occupation.” It also claimed that its forces will fight against the Turkish invasion and appealed for international support.
Erdogan had first announced on May 23 that Turkey would launch a fresh invasion into northern Syria to create a 30 kilometer “security zone” along the border. Despite the concerns raised by different sections globally, Erdogan said later on May 28 that while the date for the invasion was not announced, “we will come down on them suddenly one night.”
On Wednesday, Erdogan laid out a detailed plan for the proposed attack inside Syrian borders. He said, “we are entering a new phase of our decision to create a 30 kilometer-deep “safe zone” along our southern borders. We are clearing Tel Rifaat and Manbij from terrorists. Then we will do the same step by step in other regions.”
According to some news reports, Turkey has already started deploying arms and ammunition in the areas under its control since 2019 as a part of the proposed invasion.
Turkey has long claimed that the SDF and one of its constituents, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which controls north-east Syria, are affiliated to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK was founded in the 1980s to fight for the rights of Kurdish minorities facing state persecution in Turkey. Turkey and some of its western allies have banned the PKK, calling it a terrorist organization.
SDF forces have refuted the Turkish claims and instead accused Turkey of occupying Kurdish regions and indulging in large-scale human right violations.
Turkey has carried out military operations inside northern Iraq against the alleged presence of PKK fighters there. In a speech to the members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Wednesday, Erdogan claimed that Turkey considers all Kurdish militias as part of the PKK.
However, the Turkish claim of fighting terrorism in northern Syria have been questioned. Some claim that the proposed invasion is part of Erdogan’s plan to resettle millions of Syrian refugees in those regions.
Turkey has close to 3.5 million Syrian refugees who were displaced due to the ongoing war in their country. The presence of these refugees has already become an electoral issue in Turkey where elections are due next year. Erdogan is accused by the Turkish opposition of inviting these refugees. Sensing rising opposition to his policies which may hurt his electoral chances, Erdogan wants some of these refugees to go and settle in areas controlled by Turkey in northern Syria.
There are some observers who claim that the Turkish move is a bargaining chip to force Finland and Sweden to change their stance on the PKK. Turkey accuses the Nordic countries of supporting the PKK. Given the fact that their membership bid to NATO will fail without Turkey’s support, Erdogan thinks he can force the two countries to denounce their support to the Kurdish cause.
The Turkish invasion in Syria also creates a dilemma for the US as it would create a public opinion disaster for NATO at a time when it is trying to implicate Russia for attacking Ukraine. Additionally, the SDF is a close ally of the US. This makes it difficult for the US to take a position in a fight between two of its allies.
The US backs the SDF as a bulwark against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria and as an ally in the fight against ISIS. A Turkish offensive may hamper the US standing in the region as it did during the 2019 offensive.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a joint press conference with the NATO Secretary General on Wednesday urged Turkey to refrain from launching any offensive inside northern Syria, claiming that the US will oppose “any escalation there.” He said that a “new offensive would undermine regional stability.”
Turkey has invaded northern Syria at least three times since 2016. During its last invasion (‘Operation Peace Spring’) in October 2019, nearly 700 civilians were killed and over 300,000 were displaced.
Turkish forces were supported by the Syrian National Army (SNA) which are militias fighting against the Syrian government since 2011 and believed to have extremist ideology. Turkish forces captured Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain (SereKaniye) during the offensive.
The Turkish invasion stopped only after it signed two separate ceasefire agreements with the US and Russia. As per the ceasefire with Russia, the SDF agreed to withdraw its fighters 30 km away from the border into Syria. Turkish and Russian forces have been jointly patrolling in the region to enforce the implementation of the deal.
Turkey accuses Russia and the US of failing to implement the 2019 agreement and is citing this as the reason for its proposed offensive. The SDF has claimed that it has complied with the ceasefire deal.