Turkish military incursion in Syria faces opposition from US, Russia

By Dorian Jones - RFI
Russia  AP  Baderkhan Ahmad
© AP / Baderkhan Ahmad

Turkish military forces are poised to launch a ground offensive in Syria against US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, accused by Ankara of attacks on Turkey. But Ankara is facing stiff opposition from both Washington and Moscow.

Turkish security forces blame the Syrian Kurdish YPG for carrying out a series of recent attacks against Turkey, including in Istanbul, a charge the group denies. 

The Turkish Defense Ministry said Sunday that Turkey launched deadly airstrikes over northern regions of Syria and Iraq, targeting Kurdish groups that Ankara holds responsible for last month's deadly bomb attack in a bustling street in Istanbul.

Ankara also accuses them of being linked to PKK insurgents fighting in Turkey.

After shelling positions held by the YPG, Turkish forces are now poised to create a 30 km deep security corridor inside Syria.

Mesut Casin, a presidential advisor at Istanbul's Yeditepe University, says preparations are almost complete for the incursion saying Turkey has no choice.

"Just in a short time, three attacks killed many civilians. This is number one. And number two, the military has explained that within the last eight months, we lost more than one hundred military service people." Casin told RFI. 

He points to a map on his computer screen of the Syrian region under YPG control.

"A lot of weapons are deployed in the YPG area in eastern Syria. Often their missiles kill civilians. This is an unacceptable condition for Turkey. This is against our military security and sovereignty," he explains. 

Difficult diplomacy

The YPG strenuously denies it is launching attacks into Turkey.

The Syrian Kurdish group is a close ally of the United States in its war against the Islamic State.

The group says it suspended some its operations against the Islamic State because of the looming Turkish threat.

"There's the danger that the US government will be torn between two unsavoury options," says Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow of the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank.

"That is to say, abandoning their Kurdish allies, who they've been fighting with, fighting ISIS since 2014, or facing a confrontational relationship with Turkey, when things seem to be on a relatively even keel.

"So both of these options are bad," Aydintasbas continues. "The US would be faced with this dilemma if there was a Turkish incursion. So what they're trying to do, behind the scenes, is urge and warn Turkey not to go ahead."

Washington is calling on Ankara to step back, a stance echoed by Moscow, which controls part of Syria that Ankara is targeting. Russia also controls Syrian airspace access, which analysts say Turkish forces would need for any ground operation.

Iranian-backed militia in Syria have also vowed to resist any Turkish incursion. 

Political distraction

But with Turkey in the midst of a deep economic crisis, some analysts say powerful domestic forces are behind the planned operation.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing reelection next year and cannot risk losing face by pulling back from such an incursion.

"Erdogan desperately needs an operation, any military operation beyond Turkish national borders, and the best place would be in Syria," says Rtd general Haldun Solmazturk of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.

"But it has become obvious that neither the United States nor the Russian Federation would let this happen. So faced with this reality, Erdogan has already backed down, I believe, and now he's bargaining," Solmazturk says.

One concession Ankara is looking for from Washington is purchasing American fighter jets, a sale currently stalled in the US Congress.

No let up

"I believe the incentive for Mr. Erdogan is to conduct this operation because it would create a kind of rallying around the flag movement," Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat and now a regional analyst for Medyascope news portal, told RFI.

"The operation may be delayed, but the threat, or the statement of an imminent military operation for northern Syria, will stay with us until the elections, at least," Selcen adds.

Whatever Ankara does, few predict any let up in the coming months by the Turkish military in its targeting of the YPG.