On 30 October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for a major offensive in northern Syria. In an address to parliament, Erdogan vowed to clear the area east of the Euphrates River of all enemies of Turkey. “We are ready to smash the terrorist structure east of the Euphrates. We have completed preparations for this issue. In the near future, we will drive the terrorist organization into a corner through a large-scale and efficient operation. One night we will suddenly come,” Erdogan told Turkey’s parliament.
Of course the terrorist threat Erdogan was referring to is the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization long banned in Turkey.
Ready for Round Two
This upcoming incursion into Syria by Turkish forces can hardly come as a surprise. Earlier this year, Ankara launched a targeted incursion into areas of the country just south of the Turkish border. Dubbed Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish invasion was an effort to root out Kurdish strongholds. In early January, Turkish tanks rolled into the city of Afrin in northern Syria in the first steps of an operation to dislodge YPG forces from the area. The attack proved devastating to the area as a whole. Thousands of people were displaced and scores of civilians killed, according to reports.
The operation, ironically dubbed “Olive Branch,” has drawn intense criticism from U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis who told reporters while on a trip to Indonesia that “the violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area in Syria and distracts from the international effort to defeat Daesh.” Turkey, however, has not been perturbed. The latest reports have confirmed that the Turkish military has extended its incursion in Syria to the town of Manbij, about 100km directly to the east of Afrin, an area where U.S. troops were stationed at the time, and are still. President Donald Trump responded to Turkish military action warning that Turkey’s continued operations ran the risk of “conflict between Turkish and American forces” stationed in the region. It is important to understand the implications of Trump’s words, which were essentially an implicit threat of attacking Turkish units if they continued advancing in Syria.
The first round of Erdogan’s Syria incursion ended with no real U.S.-Turkey conflict. But it also left a lot of unfinished business as far as Turkey was concerned. Already in May, Erdogan was speaking of an expanded campaign.
Now the first shots of that campaign have already been fired.
Even before Erdogan delivered his speech in parliament, Turkish forces began shelling Kurdish positions on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. YPG unites are bracing for a Turkish thrust into the area.
From the U.S. perspective, there are two concerns about the impending Turkish advance.
First and foremost, is that their ally in Syria will probably be in all-out war with their NATO partner Turkey within the week. Navigating this awkward balance act has long been a challenge for the administration in working out it’s Syria policy.
But from a more practical point of view, American forces are going to face the same problem they did during the first Turkish operation, namely getting caught in the crossfire of a Kurdish-Turkish showdown.
This time around, the military is taking some precautions. Back in June, the Turkish and U.S. armies began joint patrols in the area around American bases in Manbij to establish a minimum of coordination. The two countries also had to cooperate on the transfer of territorial control following the Turkish invasion. Now, with act-two of Turkey’s ground operations in Syria about to commence, Turkey and the U.S. are again starting low-level joint operations in the region.
If Erdogan has to come into Syria again, the very least U.S. forces can do is insure their own safety.