Turkey’s possible military operation targeting northern Syria has three main goals: to fight the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian branch YPG that threatens the security of the country on the border, to prevent a terror state that may emerge under the control of the YPG and finally to take a step that will facilitate the return of Syrians.
Serhat Erkmen, an academic from Altınbaş University, said the Western media sustains an inaccurate argument that the YPG is not attacking Turkey.
“As a branch of the PKK, the YPG continues its attacks not only in Syria but also inside Turkey. They attacked our border post in Karkamış a short time ago. There have been many such attacks. In this context, the first objective of this operation is to fight terrorism. Direct attacks are taking place on our presence in Idlib, our presence in Afrin, and our presence in the Euphrates Shield region from Tal Rifaat, one of the main targets. As part of the fight against terrorism, Turkey wants to end the PKK/YPG presence in Tal Rifaat,” Erkmen said.
According to Erkmen, the second dimension of this operation is the strategic one. One of the biggest recent changes in Syria has been in the U.S. sanctions against Syria, he said, noting that the YPG regions were excluded from the embargoes against Syria.
“Some privileges were introduced for these regions. We have seen that the first steps have been taken to separate this region from Syria economically. From our point of view, this shows that the operation in Syria is not only fighting terrorism but has become a strategic necessity to solve a bigger threat such as the YPG state that would be established in the region in the long run,” he explained.
The United States lifting sanctions on northeastern Syrian territories held by the YPG is an attempt to legitimize the terrorist group, Turkey said recently.
Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented on the U.S. decision to exempt the economic activities of some regions of Syria that are not under regime control from the U.S. Caesar Act sanctions.
“The YPG is a terrorist organization. The YPG is what the PKK is. Therefore, it is not possible for us to accept this mistake made by the United States,” he said.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also said: “It’s a selective, discriminatory approach, and they have introduced flexibility in these Caesar Act sanctions for certain regions.”
The Caesar Act is United States legislation that sanctions the Syrian regime, including its leader Bashar Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population. It was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in December 2019 and became effective on June 17, 2020.
“They do not want to expand these exceptions to the regions controlled by the regime, but they favor the regions that the regime does not control at the moment. Especially in places where the PKK/YPG is dominant, they stretch it. For example, it covers the region we cleared of terrorism of Daesh, but not the region like Afrin, which we cleared of the PKK.”
The U.S. imposed sweeping sanctions on the regime and its leadership in retaliation for atrocities the regime has committed during the Syrian conflict, which is now in its 12th year. The PKK/YPG remains in control of large swathes of northeastern Syria with U.S. backing.
Third, and one of the long-term goals of the operation, is the return of Syrians to their homeland, Erkmen also said and added: “More than 2.5 million people live in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch regions. Despite all of Turkey’s aid, there are still infrastructural deficiencies. It is not easy for the region, which has been left behind for hundreds of years, to rise up again in a conflict environment. Turkey needs more space to enable people to return to their homes in such an environment. To enable more Syrians to return to their homes, it is necessary to give them more space. Tal Rifaat and Manbij are very important places in this sense. Achieving these targets will ensure a long-term return from Turkey to Syria.”
Stating that the operations will continue in northern Syria, Erkmen said: “We are currently living the continuation of an unfinished story. Within the framework of the fight against the PKK/YPG, Turkey aims to control a wider area and minimize the separatist organization’s sphere of influence in Syria. At the point we have reached today, due to the partial change in the internal balances in Syria and the change in the international conjuncture, the fight against terrorism has become an opportunity to move to an advanced stage. Turkey is currently seizing this opportunity. This struggle will be spread over a very long phase. This operation will not be the last.”
Erdoğan said two weeks ago that Turkey would launch new military operations in Syria to extend the 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “safe zones” along the border, aiming at the Tal Rifaat and Manbij regions and other areas further east.
“We are taking another step in establishing a 30-kilometer security zone along our southern border. We will clean up Tal Rifaat and Manbij,” he said, adding that the planned military operations will gradually continue in other parts of northern Syria.
Erdoğan has said that since the United States and Russia have failed to live up to their commitments to provide a safe zone along the border region, Turkey is ready to mount an operation to protect the nation and locals in northern Syria from the PKK/YPG terrorist threat.
In October 2019, Russia committed to removing the terrorist group from Tal Rifaat and Manbij after reaching an agreement with Turkey during Operation Peace Spring. Moscow also promised that the terrorists would be pulled back 30 kilometers from the border on the M4 highway and in the area outside the Operation Peace Spring zone. Likewise, U.S. then-Vice President Mike Pence pledged to Turkey that the YPG/PKK terrorist group would withdraw from the Operation Peace Spring region. But neither Moscow nor Washington kept their promises.
The YPG/PKK mostly carries out terrorist attacks in Manbij, Ain al-Arab and the Tal Rifaat district of Aleppo, even using these regions as bases for its attacks. The YPG, which occupies roughly a third of Syria’s territory with the support of the United States, frequently targets Azaz, Marea, al-Bab, Jarablus, Afrin, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in the north of the country with heavy weapons.
Turkish-backed operations in previous years have ousted the YPG/PKK from the northwestern enclave of Afrin and a series of border towns further east. Since 2016, Ankara has launched a trio of successful anti-terror operations across its border in northern Syria to prevent the formation of a terror corridor and enable the peaceful settlement of residents: Euphrates Shield (2016), Olive Branch (2018) and Peace Spring (2019).
The YPG has controlled much of northeastern Syria since the forces of Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad withdrew in 2012. Assad’s forces have recovered most of Syria but some areas remain outside his control. Turkish forces are deployed in much of the north and northwest, the last opposition stronghold, and U.S. forces are stationed in the YPG-controlled east and northeast.
The PKK is a designated terrorist organization in the U.S., Turkey and the European Union, and Washington’s support for its Syrian affiliate has been a major strain on bilateral relations with Ankara. The U.S. primarily partnered with the YPG in northeastern Syria to fight the Daesh terrorist group. On the other hand, Turkey strongly opposed the YPG’s presence in northern Syria. Ankara has long objected to the U.S.’ support for the YPG, a group that poses a threat to Turkey and that terrorizes local people, destroying their homes and forcing them to flee.
While acknowledging Turkey’s security concerns, Washington has voiced concerns about Ankara’s plans, saying a new operation could undermine regional stability and put American forces at risk. Russia also said last week it hoped Turkey “refrains from actions which could lead to a dangerous deterioration of the already difficult situation in Syria.”