With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent statement about “eliminat[ing] threats arising from northern Syria,” followed by remarks from the Turkish Foreign Minister and Defence Minister, it appears that a new joint Turkish-Syrian military operation against the YPG terror group in Syria is imminent. If it occurs, this operation will be yet another step in furthering counterterrorism efforts and helping Syria preserve its territorial integrity.
While some wonder the reasons behind the military operation and its timing, it is important to understand that the military operation was made inevitable by the US and Russia not fulfilling their requirements under the Turkish-Russian agreement and the terror campaign of the YPG.
The aims of the military operation can be summarised under three main points: to neutralise the YPG from the Syrian-Turkish border to ensure Turkey’s border security; protect the territorial integrity of Syria by increasing the territorial control of the Syrian Interim Government against the YPG; and enable a safe zone for Syrian IDPs as well as the eventual voluntary return of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
After Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government launched Operation Peace Spring in 2019 in northeast Syria, the areas between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn in an area extending 32 km from the Turkish border was cleared of the YPG terror group. However, the Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government described the operation as incomplete and pointed out that only the first of the three military steps of the joint operation were taken.
However, two separate deals with Russia and the United States stopped the military actions of the Syrian National Army (SNA) and the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). While the deal with the US stopped the SNA-TAF advancement and cancelled US sanctions against Turkey, presidential decrees renewed every year made it clear if the military operations continue, the revoked sanctions will be re-imposed.
The deal with Russia was more comprehensive. After Operation Peace Spring, the YPG invited the Assad regime and Russia to protect the frontlines against a further push by the joint Turkish-Syrian forces, Russia obligated itself under the terms of the deal to enforce a full withdrawal of all YPG forces from Tel Rifaat, Manbij and an area extending 32 km from the Turkish border in the east of the Euphrates reaching the border with Iraq. The deal also foresaw joint Turkish-Russian patrols in a 10 km-wide strip across the Turkish-Syrian border. Except for the joint patrols, Russia failed to deliver on any of the terms of the agreement.
On the contrary, the YPG, with at least a green light from Russia, waged a terror campaign against Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government. The YPG terror group engaged in ceasefire violations daily by attacking civilian populated areas with howitzers and rockets. The most brutal of the YPG attacks were the constant car bomb attacks conducted in urban areas killing civilians randomly.
While some of the cases were suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attacks, others were IEDs planted on civilian cars to be exploded at a random time at a random place. These terror attacks without any regard for who the targets were, could not be tolerated forever.
The YPG tried to maintain plausible deniability but car bombs captured at crossing points from YPG-held areas to the areas of the Syrian Interim Government as well as captured YPG cells and the logic behind the attacks give no doubt on who the perpetrators are. Foreign backers of the YPG, like the US, would condemn the attacks without naming any culprits or ignore them entirely like Russia.
The latest attacks by the YPG that killed two Turkish policemen and civilians were the last straw. In the past, the YPG even attacked Al Shifa hospital but denied responsibility by rejecting its presence in the Tel Rifaat pocket. The YPG argues that it has no connection to its units in Tel Rifaat by giving them another name — a classic PKK name game. Due to these reasons, a new joint Turkish-Syrian military operation has become inevitable.
Possible locations for the launch of the operation
When the military operation starts, Tel Rifaat seems to be a favourable option. As the YPG and the US deny the YPG presence in the pocket, the US sanctions under the presidential decree cannot be applied against Turkey if it were to launch the operation here. However, Russia wants to preserve the YPG presence in the Tel Rifaat pocket to maintain a buffer between the areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government and Aleppo city, and to continue to disrupt a potential alternative to Bashar al Assad’s regime.
This became clear when Russia conducted airstrikes on the village of Tuways near Tel Rifaat, just after Turkey retaliated against a YPG attack that killed one Turkish soldier in the village. Therefore, an operation on Tel Rifaat would either require a Turkish-Russian understanding or a unilateral military enforcement by Turkey.
A second option could be to expand the Tel Abyad-Ras al Ayn strip to the east and west. As Russia does not control the airspace in this area, and its capabilities with the S-400 are limited in range, this option would face little obstacles from the Russian military. However, conducting this military operation would automatically enforce US sanctions against Turkey, and as this area primarily consists of Kurdish towns and villages, clearing the region of the YPG may open the way for 500 thousand Syrian-Kurdish refugees in Turkey and Iraq to return home, but it would also create media backlash.
A meeting between Erdogan and Joe Biden might be a potential solution to the question of sanctions. For example, the Syrian National Army could only operate in the southern parts where Arabs live and the Syrian-Kurdish Roj Peshmerga forces — currently located in northern Iraq where they are trained by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and engaged in clashes against Daesh and the PKK — could be deployed to the northern parts, where Kurds live. The town of Manbij would be an area of operation for the Syrian National Army. Turkish Armed Forces would accompany and aid both.
A third option would be to focus on the Malikiyah axis near the Iraqi border. If the triangle between Turkey-Syria-Iraq is cleared of the terror group, the YPG would lose its main supply line between Iraq and Syria. By cutting off this route, the threat posed by the YPG and its ambitions for an autonomous statelet in Syria would diminish.
Here once again, the option to include the Roj Peshmerga has to be considered. Once again, US sanctions would automatically apply against Turkey. Moreover, to cut the supply line of the YPG would also mean to cut the supply line of US forces deployed in Syria at the oil fields of Deir Ezzor. Therefore, the US administration would either need to withdraw partially or entirely from Syria, or Turkey would need to ensure the safety of US troops and the functionality of the supply line for US troops.
In sum, a military operation against Tel Rifaat would face no obstacle by the US but much from Russia. A military operation against the Malikiyah axis would face no obstacle by Russia but much from the US. A military operation to expand the Tel Abyad and the Ras al Ayn strip to the east and west would face some obstacles from the US and little obstacles from Russia. Therefore, if a new Syrian-Turkish military operation occurs, the targeted areas will be determined by diplomacy rather than by military aspects.
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