Alwaght- Turkey’s threats against the Syrian Kurds remains a significant issue in the regional developments after eight years of conflict in Syria. Over the past few weeks, the Turkish army unprecedentedly stepped up its movement on the north Syrian borders. According to the Turkish military officials, the military units on the border are waiting for an order to launch an operation in Syria’s north where the Kurdish forces are holding ground.
The Turkish military operation raises a set of questions. What is the goal behind the operation in the eastern Euphrates? How successful will Ankara be in setting up the long-wished buffer zone in northern Syria? How will the US react as an ally to the Syrian Kurds?
Erdogan dreaming of occupying northern Syria
At the time being, the main driving force behind Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military campaign in northern Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are in control, is more related to the Turkish leader’s territorial ambitions in the north to realize his dream of reviving the Ottoman Empire than to the security concerns Ankara develops about the Kurdish control of areas of Syria bordering Turkey’s south.
As a proof, we can refer to the demands of the Turkish government in the years that followed the beginning of the Syrian war. When the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, Ankara and mainly Erdogan pressed for a safe zone in northern Syria from Azaz to Jarabulus with a length of 90 kilometers and depth of 40 kilometers. But the US and the Europeans brazenly opposed the idea. Erdogan did not walk down from his requests, however. He finally launched Operation Euphrates Shield in association with the Syrian opposition militants in 2016 seizing territories even beyond the requested area for the safe zone.
The essential motivation for the Turkish leader to take control of western Euphrates was that the region was the epicenter of threats against Turkey. Turkey and its local allies controlled Azaz, Jarabulus, and Al-Bab towns in Aleppo province’s north. But that was not the end. In early 2018, the Turkish army began Operation Olive Branch. In March it seized control of Afrin town, the center of a canton with the same name, from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). A year after, now the president and military commanders are eyeing to gain control of the eastern Euphrates that contains two remaining Kurdish cantons of Island and Kobani. The historical backgrounds of the Turkish intervention in Syria and the way of Ankara actions in the captured regions of western Euphrates give away Erdogan’s designs to occupy northern Syria at its entirety and just against his claims he will not hand over the occupied areas to the legitimate government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey and West in inescapable confrontation
Since 2014 that Washington’s security investments on the Syrian opposition failed, the US and European states engaged in Syria war started cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. YPG and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which acted as the US infantry on the ground, took from ISIS terrorist group regions in the north and east, among them Raqqa, the so-called capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. When President Donald Trump took the office at the White House in 2017, Erdogan tried hard to persuade him to end the backing to the Kurds. But several rounds of talks between Ankara and Washington on the case went nowhere.
In mid-2018, Erdogan sharpened the tone of his threats to launch new operation in the north against the Kurds. He even talked about the impending operation. The American president, despite his earlier plan to withdraw his forces from Syria, in reaction warned that if Ankara attacks the Kurds, the US will “devastate Turkey economically.” Turkey retreated from its threats as a result. At the time Erdogan had ahead of him and his party the Justice and Development Party the provincial and municipal elections and could not maneuver in response to Trump. After all, he knew that in case of an economic crisis in his country as a result of the US economic sanctions, his party would lose the significant elections.
Massive sanctions, US’s unavoidable option to punish Erdogan
While Turkey says its decision to attack eastern Euphrates to “prevent a corridor of terror” led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Ankara is irreversible, on the opposite side Washington and the European powers do not seem to be inclined to show flexibility in front of Turkey. The situation takes place at a time of tense ties between the two as Trump is now angry with Erdogan for the latter’s procurement of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia last month despite the US threats to block a deal to deliver F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.
The Congress lawmakers are now mulling massive economic sanctions against Ankara to, on the one hand, punish Erdogan for his purchase of the advanced Russian interception system and, on the other hand, deter the Turkish operation targeting the US allies in Syria’s north. What is clear is that in case of Turkey’s assault on the eastern Euphrates, the Americans will not resort to a military confrontation with this NATO ally but the alternative is heavy-handed sanctions that will certainly force Erdogan to make compromises.