Erdogan says military operations are “just beginning” against Syrian Kurdish groups, while teasing possibility of talks with Assad.
Turkey begins ‘payback’ for terrorist attack in Istanbul
The Biden administration is seeking to restrain Turkish military operations in Syria, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is so far undeterred.
Erdogan said that Operation Claw Sword, launched with air, artillery, and drone attacks on Kurdish-controlled cities in northern Syria on Nov. 20, is just getting started, meaning he may soon send in ground forces.
“Payback time! The scoundrels are being held to account for their treacherous attacks,” Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense wrote in a tweet announcing the operation.
The goal is to establish a “security line” that Erdogan said would ultimately “ensure the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq.”
In his sights are the “troublesome” mostly Kurdish towns of Tell Rifaat, Manbij and Ayn al-Arab. This means Turkish forces will be in direct conflict with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which primality includes and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the gendarme of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD).
While the SDF has been the go-to on-the-ground US partner against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, Erdogan views them as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey (and the US) consider a terrorist group.
Erdogan blames the PKK for the bombing in Istanbul on Nov. 13 that killed six and wounded more than 80, and was the catalyst for the Turkish operation.
Erdogan, in remarks on Nov. 23, is having no more of the West’s efforts to differentiate the SDF/ PYD/YPG from the PKK.
“From now on we cannot tolerate anyone coming before us with this lie,” he said.
Erdogan went on to criticize a pattern of ‘enmity’ behind injustices inflicted on Turkey, including the F-35 crisis with the United States and the European Union’s denying full membership to Turkey.
Pentagon says US troops ‘directly threatened’ by attack…
Pentagon Press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a press release on Nov. 23 that Turkish airstrikes in Syria “directly threatened” US troops working with the SDF to combat IS in Syria, as Jared Szuba reports.
A Turkish drone strike landed within 130 meters of American personnel at a US base near Hasakah, Syria.
“It’s not yet clear what leverage Washington is willing to employ to convince its key NATO ally not to attack the Kurdish militia whose only shared interest with the US, American officials insist, is containing IS in Syria,” Szuba writes.
Kobane: US statements ‘absolutely not strong enough’
In an exclusive interview with Amberin Zaman, SDF Commander Mazlum Kobane (also known as Mazloum Abdi), said that his native city, Kobani, could be the target of a potential Turkish ground offensive in Syria.
Kobane argues that Turkey won’t conduct a ground offensive without a green light from the United States and Russia, and is hoping that Washington makes this more clear to Erdogan.
Kobani told Zaman that so far the Biden administration’s calls for restraint so far “are absolutely not strong enough.”
“Unless the Kremlin and Washington stand firm, Turkey would likely follow through on repeated threats to move its troops against his [Kobane’s] forces as it has done in two separate invasions in 2018 and 2019,” writes Zaman. “Any such action, he [Kobane] said, would further destabilize the area and torpedo US-led efforts to root out remnants of the Islamic State. Kobane attributed Turkey’s latest attacks to … Erdogan’s efforts to stoke nationalist sentiments ahead of elections next year.”
Similarly, Ilham Ahmed of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political arm, wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the administration to speak out more forcefully against a potential Turkish invasion, Elizabeth Hagedorn reports.
Both Kobane and Ahmad deny any SDF involvement in the Istanbul bombing.
“The Biden administration says Turkey has a right to defend itself but warns cross-border violence could undermine Ankara and Washington’s shared goal of defeating Islamic State militants, who the US military estimates number between 6,000 to 10,000 across Syria and Iraq,” Hagedorn reports from Washington. “Nearly four years after the collapse of IS’s self-declared caliphate, several hundred US troops remain stationed in the Kurdish-run territory to help quash what remains of the terrorist group.”
Kobane also said the Ukraine war may have hindered a more direct US and Russian message to Ankara.
“Turkey has taken advantage of the conflict and marketed itself successfully to the United States and Russia alike,” he said. “And if both of these countries are failing to meet our expectations in the face of Turkish aggression against us, it is partly related to the dynamics around the Ukraine conflict. It’s also true that US interest in the Middle East and in Syria in particular has waned.”
Erdogan weighs meeting with Assad
In a related development, Erdogan said that a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is “possible.”
“There is no resentment or bitterness in politics,” Erdogan said this week. “Sooner or later, we will take steps.”
“His statement marks the second of its kind within a span of two weeks as Ankara threatens to add ground operations in northern Syria to its ongoing air campaign,” as we report here. “But for that step, Turkey needs the blessings of Moscow, which has long pressed both Ankara and Damascus to mend their ties.”
The possibility of a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, and between Damascus and the Kurds, puts the Kurds at the center of discussions of Syria’s future.
Kobane doesn’t see it happening soon.
Russia wants us to seek an agreement Syria, he told Zaman. “As for the United States, they need to articulate a clearer policy on Syria. They have no strategy beyond fighting [the Islamic State] and have failed to formulate a clear policy with regard to the future of the areas under our control. The absence of this policy makes it harder for us to negotiate successfully with Damascus,” adding that the US does not oppose talks with Assad’s government.
But Syria’s not ready, “and Russia is not applying enough pressure on them,” adds Kobane. “The other problem, of course, is that the government in Damascus sees itself as irreplaceable, without alternative, and this mindset makes them that more intractable and unresponsive to our demands.”