Every time Turkey nears the start of a military operation east of the Euphrates in northern Syria, the United States tries to restrain it and stop its rush. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ‘s threats this time to launch this operation seem more seriously , as he announced on Tuesday that his country would use force if necessary to defend its national interests, adding that Ankara’s steps on northern Syria would enter a different phase soon. He explained that Turkey would pay a high price if it did not do what is necessary in northern Syria, after pledging at the weekend to carry out a military operation in the Kurdish-controlled area in eastern Euphrates.
Erdogan’s comments in Ankara come as Turkish-US negotiations on a safe zone in northern Syria are stalled, with Ankara saying that the establishment of it would allow the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Syria and reduce threats to Turkey. Turkey wants the safe area to be between30 and 40 kilometers deep inside Syrian territory and extends from east of the Euphrates in eastern Aleppo (Reef Halab) to the Iraqi border This area is now controlled by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose Kurdish units form the backbone.
Earlier, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar issued a threat, described by some as an “important shift,” saying that “his country will be forced to establish a safe area in northeastern Syria on its own, if there is no common understanding with the United States. This was followed by an assurance from the Turkish National Security Council that Turkey is determined to establish a peace corridor instead of the terrorist corridor in Northern Syria ” in a statement issued last week by the Council, referring to an imminent operation against the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF).
On the other hand, the United States warned against any unilateral military operation by Turkey in the eastern Euphrates region in northern Syria, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday that his country would prevent any unilateral incursion in northern Syria, and that any Turkish operation there is “unacceptable.” Esper, in a statement to reporters accompanying him on a visit to Japan, that the implementation of a Turkish operation in northern Syria, may prevent the focus of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” on preventing the Islamic State from regaining territory previously controlled. The YPG is the main armed faction of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The comments come as talks between a US military delegation and Turkish officials continue in Ankara to reach an agreement on a safe area in northern Syria east of the Euphrates.
According to observers, there is a new American proposal to establish a limited safe area with a depth of not more than 15 kilometers and a length not exceeding 150 kilometers at best, to be conducted by joint patrols between the US and Turkish sides, and discuss the expansion of the area in two stages to include the length of the border east of the Euphrates.
This proposal contradicts the conditions of Turkey, which insists that the safe area should be 32 km deep and 450 km wide from the east of the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, and that the area be under Turkish control and in the presence of the US only, with the destruction of all the fortifications of Kurdish units. Turkey and Washington have been negotiating for months on a plan to organize joint patrols in a safe area of approximately 32km into Syria and the withdrawal of the SDF from all buffer zones (but the length and possible endpoints of these areas remain unclear). ). Representatives of the SDF said US officials were pressing them to allow a limited number of Turkish troops into the proposed area.
In light of this great divergence in the terms of the parties, talk again about the military operation that Turkey has threatened to carry out for years east of the Euphrates, in light of the great American rejection, despite the talk of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Sunday, that his country informed Russia and America Its intention to move soon east of the Euphrates.
With Turkey’s insistence on military action, growing strong indications on the ground that the operation is going to be carried out , and in the face of a sharp US rejection of the operation, the door was opened to questions about the dangers of confrontation between the two countries and the steps Washington could take to stop the Turkish operation and protect the units as US officials have also repeatedly promised, or the possibility of the Syrian regime to declare its rejection of the Turkish move in Syrian territory and work to face the operation through the activation of air defense systems by Russian support, whether direct, public or indirect.
Political and military levels in Turkey expect that the United States will likely declare a no-fly zone over areas east of the Euphrates if disputes escalate, in an attempt to curb any Turkish military action in the region and create obstacles to the expected Turkish military operation in Area, where there are US military anti-aircraft missile systems.
Turkish experts say aviation is an essential part of any anticipated military operation in order to explore and uncover the area and destroy the large fortifications built by Kurdish units in the region, but stressed that there are many military solutions that can help overcome this dilemma.
In recent months, Turkey has significantly increased its reliance on its drones for reconnaissance and bombing targets, especially for the destruction of moving targets, assassinations, and the destruction of important small-scale targets, and as an important producer of these aircraft, it will be willing to sacrifice a number of them to ensure that manned aircraft are not at risk . But experts believe that the drones are easy to shoot down from the simplest air defense systems.
Military experts say F16 warplanes can maneuver and destroy targets inside Syrian territory as deep as several kilometers without entering Syrian airspace, firing rockets from high altitudes from Turkish airspace, and using smart bombs capable of hitting Goals more deeply.
Turkey also plans to rely more on land forces, especially rocket launchers developed by the Turkish defense industry in recent years, which proved to be capable of intensive strikes and high destructive capacity.
Turkish newspapers indicate that one of the options is to install conventional artillery batteries inside areas where the Turkish army is progressing progressively in order to prolong their range and enable them to hit targets deeper, pointing to the heavy Turkish artillery used strongly in the operations of the olive branch and the Euphrates Shield and proved great efficiency.
However, Turkey does not want to enter into such an adventure either with the US or Russia and it is always likely to work in coordination with the major powers that control the region, as was done in coordination with Washington in the operation of the Euphrates Shield and with Russia in the operation of the olive branch, which this time can succeed too, by obtaining tacit US approval to enter certain areas east of the Euphrates. The question arises in this context: How will the SDF respond to the establishing of a unilateral buffer zone?
The SDF cannot be expected to successfully defend its territory against Turkey without the help of the US-led coalition. Given the remarkable success of the YPG, and later the SDF, in defeating the Islamic State, external observers may overestimate their ability to rely on themselves against a conventional military enemy.
For example, it could not defend Kobani or capture Raqqa, Manbij, and most of Deir ez-Zur governorate without the help of Coalition Air Force.
Its ground forces have become extremely powerful thanks to its partnership with Western Special Forces, intelligence agents and close air support. Without this support, it would probably not have been able to withstand the attack by Turkish proxy forces, not to mention the Turkish military itself. This is particularly true with the uneven nature of flat land in northeastern Syria. Even when the YPG tried to defend its western mountainous enclave in Afrin – a land much more suitable for irregular warfare – Turkish-backed forces captured it within months.
Given these military realities, the SDF has no incentive to give Turkey an additional pretext for further interventions, or to give Washington a reason to withdraw its support. Any impression that the PKK might activate its armed campaign in Turkey to deter aggression on its Syrian branch was probably wrong even before Ocalan’s latest message. Since the beginning of the Syrian war, the YPG and SDF have given priority to distinguishing their campaigns from the PKK conflict in Turkey. Kurdish officials are well aware that further violence by the PKK will lead to Turkish counter-movements on both sides of the border.
Indeed, if the coalition’s support is weakened, the SDF is likely to try to make an agreement with Bashar al-Assad and Russia to protect the northeast. Since it consolidated its control over the region, the YPG / SDF generally cooperated with the Assad regime. For example, the regime has maintained control in some enclaves in Qamishli and Hasakah controlled by the YPG since 2011 with minimal friction and occasional clashes.
However, the SDF is well aware of how Damascus and Moscow could be volatile allies, as was evident during the Turkish takeover of Afrin. Russia’s withdrawal of troops from that enclave and the regime’s opening of airspace to Turkey paved the way for that attack. A month after the start of the operation, the YPG urgently called for Assad’s help, but even the limited presence of regime-linked militias could not stop the Turkish-backed forces.
In fact, Damascus does not want to strengthen the Kurds, although it has sometimes rushed to their rescue. Assad, now emboldened, wants to urge other fighters in other parts of Syria to succumb, while the YPG’s stated ambition to create a semi-autonomous, pluralistic entity in the northeast of the country contradicts the regime’s vision.
Maintaining internal cohesion is perhaps the most serious threat the SDF might face if Turkey unilaterally intervenes. Survey data indicate that the group’s Arab elements will split if given the opportunity, whether the opposition forces involved are associated with Erdogan or Assad. Despite the mixed ethnic nature of the SDF, most Sunni Arabs in northeast Syria have acquiesced to the Kurdish-dominated local administration, mainly because it ensured US support and a monopoly on power. If the Turkish-backed forces defy this monopoly amid unstable support from coalition forces, large-scale Arab splits could make the SDF a mainly Kurdish group.
In this scenario, the remainder of the overwhelmingly Kurdish SDF will likely be forced to withdraw from mixed Arab – Kurdish- areas or Arab majority such as Manbij, Tal Abyad, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zur , and retreat to its isolated Kurdish enclaves in order to maintain its limited autonomy and authority. At the same time, it will lose the best means of pressure to bargain with the Assad regime while significantly reducing its usefulness to the United States and other coalition allies, which want to maintain a partner force in predominantly Arab areas that appear more vulnerable to the reemergence of ISIS .
In short, the Turkish incursion could dismantle the SDF. US policymakers are aware that allowing Ankara to create a unilateral buffer zone could fundamentally destroy the best ally in Syria. To ensure its protection, the SDF will have to seek an agreement with the Assad regime and Russia, decisively weakening US influence in the region.
If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ignores the US warning and takes a broader military move, it could have destabilizing consequences. In Turkey, a similar campaign by the PKK could trigger a new wave of domestic terrorist attacks. In Syria, the YPG may be forced to retreat from the border at a time when front-line reinforcements are being reinforced by fighters who are currently concentrated deeper inside eastern Syria. Alternatively, the YPG may use its ties to deals with the Assad regime to conclude a broader deal that would enable government forces to return to the north-east in greater numbers – in another development that could facilitate the return of ISIS due to the Sunni Arab hostility to the Syrian government.
Regarding the expected scenario if Turkey moves on the ground and launches its supposed military operation, the Kurdish researcher at the Syrian Amran Center put forward several scenarios:
– Turkish-American agreement
If an agreement is reached between Ankara and Washington, we will have an agreement similar to Manbij, but with stronger and faster operational aspects, such as Turkish rounds inside the northern Syrian border. The matter may be developed to include unilateral military presence or with factions of the opposition affiliated to Turkey on some points on the depth between 10 and 20 km.
– Intensive targeting and limited operations
The second scenario, according to Mullah Rashid, in the absence of an American-Turkish understanding, is expected to be an intensive targeting of the YPG along the Syrian-Turkish border, with the subsequent military operations targeting specific points most likely nowadays sections of the road between the cities Darbasiyah and Ras al-Ain, and the other between the town of Tel Abyad to the Ain Arab Kobani west.
The researcher sees If the operation is successful in these areas, Turkey will start to pressure Washington to gain military influence at the link between Syria’s border with Iraqi Kurdistan, which will remain far in the foreseeable future, unless Turkey tries to use all its tools in the international coalition.
Turkish Studies Unit
Rawabet Links Center for Research and Strategic Studies