Turkey targets east of Syria after securing Idlib
Just a day after the four-way Syria summit in Istanbul that brought the leaders of Turkey, Russia, Germany and France together, the Turkish army hit YPG targets east of the Euphrates River on the Turkish-Syrian border. Targeted YPG positions were in the Zor Magar region west of the city of Kobane, a stronghold of PYD/YPG groups.
It was the first offensive against the YPG positions in eastern Syria for a very long time. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been voicing that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) would target the YPG positions east of the Euphrates and this tells us that this military action has been pre-planned and has clear objectives.
In an address to his parliamentary group on Oct. 30, Erdoğan made it clear this was not a one-time offensive.
“We will also destroy the terrorist group east of the Euphrates. We will soon crush the terrorist organization with more comprehensive and effective operations. We have completed our relevant preparations, arrangements and planning. Moreover, we have started our active interventions against the terrorist organization a few days ago. We will soon crush the terrorist organization with more comprehensive and effective operations,” he said.
There are a number of aspects in regard to Turkey’s military and political objectives east of the Euphrates. First, targeting YPG positions east of the Euphrates is a clear message to the YPG and to the United States.
Erdoğan has long been criticizing the U.S. for delaying the implementation of the Manbij deal. The attack on the YPG, therefore, should be seen as a clear indication of Turkey’s determinacy in not tolerating the presence of the group along the border and east of the Euphrates. It does also want to push the U.S. for the removal of the YPG from the Manbij area so that the control of the city could be returned to the local Arabs.
At the same time, Turkey has made it clear that the removal of the YPG from Manbij to east of the Euphrates will not mean the Turkish army will stop following the YPG. Thus, it calls on the U.S. to expand the Manbij deal with the provinces east of the Euphrates if it does not want unilateral military actions against the YPG in the coming period.
At this stage, there is a big question mark on what the U.S. reaction would be, especially at a time when bilateral ties are in a process of normalization following the release of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey’s continued military action against the YPG would endanger this process as well as ongoing talks over the former’s demand of exemption from Iranian sanctions or on the Halkbank fines.
Second, it is about the timing of the military action. The shelling came after Turkey and Russia could avoid a military action by the Syrian army into Idlib. For both Turkey and Russia, the deal they brokered on Sept. 17 is well functioning and that would be helpful in sustaining the situation in the province for a long time.
Turkey hopes to divert the attention of the international community from Idlib to the eastern Euphrates and to the fact that the YPG poses a greater threat to the territorial integrity of Syria. It is not by chance that Erdoğan brought the YPG issue to the attention of Russia, Germany and France during the weekend summit, although all three countries have a very different position regarding the YPG.
Last but not least, the timing could also be relevant with domestic political processes, as local elections loom. Given the fact that previous cross-border operations helped the ruling party garner strong popular support, especially ahead of the June 24 elections, a military intervention to the east of the Euphrates in the coming months would best serve Erdoğan. It would revive the broken relationship between his party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and would cover up worsened economic conditions. Having said that, it is unlikely the government will resort to a military action just because of upcoming elections.
However, it is certain that the Turkish military mobilization along the Syrian border will stretch towards the east of the Euphrates at the expense of creating new fault lines between Turkey and the U.S and with the YPG.