Turkey’s high-stakes campaigns in Syria

Turkey’s high-stakes campaigns in Syria


Turkey has launched a series of offensives in neighboring Syria since 2016, targeting Kurdish militias, jihadists from the Islamic State group and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The latest in Iraq and Syria, dubbed Operation Claw-Sword, comes ahead of a general election in June in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will lean heavily on his nationalist supporters to try to win.

His government says it must protect Turkey’s volatile southern regions along the Syrian border from attacks by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters.

But like its previous military adventures, the latest push could create problems for Turkey’s complex relationship with its Western allies — particularly the United States.

Washington relied heavily on the YPG to defeat IS jihadists who overran large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.

Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of outlaw Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activists who have been waging a deadly insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

The government has blamed Kurdish militants for last Sunday’s deadly bombing in central Istanbul. The PKK and YPG have both denied any involvement.

The PKK is banned as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU. Ankara wants Washington to cut its ties with the YPG and give its full support to Turkey’s campaigns in Syria.

– Euphrates Shield –

Turkey’s first offensive from August 2016 to March 2017 was aimed at both IS jihadists and the YPG in the northern province of Aleppo.

With the help of allied Syrian rebels, Turkish forces captured several strategic cities including Jarabulus and Al-Bab.

The operation allowed Ankara to create a buffer zone between Turkey and Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria.

– olive branch –

Turkey’s second offensive from January to March 2018 was aimed exclusively at YPG fighters in the predominantly Kurdish northwestern region of Afrin, which is still under the control of the Turkish Surian rebel proxies to this day.

The United Nations estimates that half of the enclave’s 320,000 residents fled during the offensive.

– source of peace –

Turkey launched a broad air and ground attack against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria after former President Donald Trump controversially withdrew US forces from the region in October 2019.

Syrian rebels, backed by the Turkish military, gained control of a 30-kilometer strip of the Turkish-Syrian border during the campaign.

Targeting the very fighters the West was backing to liberate Syria from the IS group, the operation met with widespread condemnation in Europe and the United States.

Washington sanctioned some Turkish ministries, while several EU countries restricted some arms sales to Ankara.

– spring shield –

Unlike its other offensives, the offensive launched in February 2020 was specifically aimed at stopping the advance of Syrian regime forces in Idlib province.

The drone strike campaign was fraught with geopolitical risks and threatened to pit Turkey against Syrian ally Russia.

The operation ended within a week when President Erdogan flew to Moscow to sign an agreement guaranteeing a ceasefire in Idlib.

In March 2020, Turkey and Russia agreed to establish a security corridor in the region with joint Turkish-Russian patrols along a designated section of the M4 motorway.

– “Start from scratch” –

Turkey originally wanted to overthrow Assad’s regime when the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011 with the violent repression of peaceful protesters.

But after backing various insurgent groups, Ankara has more recently focused on preventing what Erdogan described in 2019 as a “terrorist corridor” from opening up in northern Syria.

In addition to fighting the YPG, he also wants to prevent a new wave of Syrian refugees from entering their territory.

Erdogan signaled this week that he could reconsider relations with Assad.

“We could start over after the June elections,” he said.

Erdogan first opened his arms to Syrians fleeing the fighting and used help from EU funds to house more than 3.6 million migrants and refugees.

But polls show Turks are holding back migrants and refugees, whose estimated number has reached five million.

Turkey completed construction of a 764-kilometer Syrian border wall in June 2018 and is building another with Iran to stem the flow of migrants from Afghanistan.

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