Turkey Says Ground Incursion Into Syria Imminent Despite US, Russian Concerns
Erdoğan has repeatedly said his country would carry out a massive operation against US-allied Kurdish fighters
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his country would launch a land operation into Syria to fight US-backed Kurdish fighters, even though Washington and Russia stated they were against such an offensive.
Turkey’s president told parliament in an address on Wednesday that airstrikes on Kurdish areas of northern Syria and Iraq, dubbed Operation Claw-Sword, which began on Sunday, was “just the beginning,” according to Turkey’s state news agency.
“We will come down hard on the terrorists with a land operation at the most convenient time,” Erdoğan said.
Following last week’s deadly bombing at a popular pedestrian mall in Istanbul, the Turkish president has revived rhetoric threatening a ground offensive against Kurdish militias in Syria, which could be a political boost to Erdoğan ahead of next year’s elections, but analysts told The Media Line that such an operation faces major hurdles from the US and Russia.
Russia has asked Turkey not to carry out a full-scale ground offensive in Syria, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
“We hope our arguments will be heard in Ankara and other ways of resolving the problem will be found,” said Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev, according to Reuters.
Russian state news agency TASS reported on Tuesday that Lavrentyev had called on Turkey to avoid an escalation in Syria.
Moscow is a backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an opponent of Erdoğan, and wields strong influence in Syria, providing military support to the regime’s forces in the country’s ongoing civil war.
“I think Erdoğan and his hawkish Interior Minister [Süleyman] Soylu would dearly love to stage another campaign in Syria,” Atilla Yeşilada, an Istanbul-based analyst and economist, told The Media Line.
However, Yeşilada believes objections from the US and Russia mean that an incursion at this moment is still unlikely.
On Monday, the US State Department said it has urged de-escalation in Syria and is opposed to “any uncoordinated military action in Iraq that violates Iraq’s sovereignty.”
Hours after the attack in Istanbul in November, which left six dead, Turkey’s interior minister claimed Kurdish terrorists were behind the bombing.
Erdoğan raised the possibility during the spring and summer of an offensive against the US-backed Kurdish armed group, the People’s Defense Units, which Ankara insists is connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK has carried out a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is categorized as a terrorist organization by Ankara, the US, and the European Union.
The PKK has denied involvement in the Istanbul bombing.
An incursion is more likely if cross-border attacks continue but the extent of it will depend on the positions of Russia and the US, according to Suleyman Ozeren, a lecturer at American University’s School of Public Affairs, who has worked on the Kurdish issue in Turkey alongside government officials.
“For any military incursion, Turkey also has to convince the Russians,” Ozeren told The Media Line “Whatever the Russians are going to say is going to have a big impact, even bigger than the US.”
Ozeren says that groups connected to the PKK, which may be acting independently, could have been responsible for the attack in Istanbul.
The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, an offshoot of the PKK, has claimed responsibility for previous bombings.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that the attack was indeed carried out by the PKK because targeting civilians has been one of their modus operandi in the past,” Ozeren said.
Turkey has repeatedly hit out at its NATO ally for its support of Kurdish fighters in Syria who cooperate with US forces in the fight against ISIS.
At a press conference early Monday morning, Soylu rejected condolences from the US, comparing the country to a murderer.
However, Erdoğan’s Twitter account posted a message later thanking countries for their condolences, which included the US.
The US State Department said the US was “deeply disappointed by any irresponsible comments to suggest that the United States had any role or responsibility in this despicable attack on Turkish citizens.”
Ozeren says the language in the statement is tougher than previous responses that denied similar accusations.
“Blaming the United States [for] arming and directing that terrorist attack was too much. I think they crossed a line,” Ozeren said.
Reuters reported that Turkey was not discounting the possibility that ISIS could have been behind the Istanbul attack, citing an unnamed senior Turkish official.
The attack comes at an especially precarious time for Turkey, with elections due to be held in seven months or less.
There are concerns that the country will once again face a string of terrorist attacks as it did in 2015 and 2016, which were carried out by Kurdish forces and ISIS, during an election period and ahead of a referendum that gave Erdoğan new powers.
Kristian Brakel, head of the Turkey office for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, says that the impact of the attack on the country’s elections depends on whether there are more attacks to come.
“A single [one] of those attacks might not change much, a whole series could shift the attention of voters from pressuring economic needs to security issues again,” Brakel told The Media Line.
Turkey’s economy has been significantly strained by the falling lira, which lost 44% of its value last year, and massive inflation that is officially reported at more than 80%, although independent economists believe it is much higher.
This has coincided with a decrease in popularity for Erdoğan and he is set to face his toughest election yet next year.
Kemal Kirişci, a fellow at The Brookings Institution, and former international relations professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University in Istanbul, told The Media Line that the Turkish president would politically benefit from a decreased focus on the economy.
“This terror issue is closely linked with the outcome in the elections because if somehow terror and security issues can creep again up to the top of the agenda of the Turkish electorate, then it’s possible that Erdoğan may make gains,” Kirişci said.