Turkey will launch a military operation in a Kurdish-controlled region of Syria, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned, a move that would escalate tensions between Ankara and the US.
Speaking on Sunday, Mr Erdogan said Turkey would enter north east Syria to take over areas controlled by Kurdish-dominated militias backed by the US. “So far, we have been patient. But that patience has its limits,” he said.
Mr Erdogan said Turkey had notified both the US and Russia — a key backer of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — of its plans.
Turkey has long threatened to invade the part of Syria adjacent to its southern border, arguing that the forces that control the region pose a threat to national security. The Syrian Democratic Forces is largely made up of Kurdish militias with close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), an armed insurgent group that has been engaged in a 35-year conflict against the Turkish state.
The SDF has been armed and trained by the American-led international coalition fighting Isis, the Islamist militant group, who earlier this year lost their last piece of territory close to the Syria-Iraq border. Washington has backed Syrian Kurdish forces as key allies in the battle against Isis, and any Turkish offensive against them risks triggering a US backlash.
A Turkish operation had seemed imminent in December after US president Donald Trump made the surprise announcement that all US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, paving the way for Ankara to launch a cross-border incursion. The US later back-peddled on that plan, partly owing to accusations of betrayal from Syrian Kurds.
US and Turkish officials subsequently began discussing plans for a “safe zone” that would see Kurdish forces withdraw from an area along the border with Turkey. But the discussions, though continuing, have failed to make progress.
Diplomats in Ankara say that, in recent weeks, they have witnessed troop build-up along the Turkish side of the border, while the Turkish military cancelled leave for units posted in the border region. Those developments, combined with repeated warnings from Mr Erdogan, have led many to believe a military operation could soon begin.
An assault would likely exacerbate US frustration with Ankara at a time when relations are already strained owing to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system, which began arriving last month. The Pentagon has begun removing Turkey from the F-35 jet programme in response, as US defence officials claim the Russian system could compromise the security of the fifth generation stealth aircraft.
Mr Trump has so far resisted pressure from Congress to impose sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for the purchase. But in January this year the president threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if it “hit the Kurds” in Syria.
The SDF and international coalition say they are still arresting suspected Isis members, and the SDF remains in charge of huge camps holding families of suspected Isis fighters and collaborators. These include foreign nationals, including some from the UK.
Western diplomats say that if an advance by Turkey is not checked by the US, the Kurds could be pushed to seek protection from Damascus.