US and Turkey at odds over potential Syria incursion

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his country could launch an operation in Syria to create a ‘safe zone.’

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, May 18, 2022. (photo credit: MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, May 18, 2022.
(photo credit: MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The United States is in talks with Turkey over its potential incursion into Syria, as experts warn that a new military operation could test recently improved relations between Ankara and Washington.

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Wednesday that Washington has been in contact with Turkish officials since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said earlier this week that his country would go into northeast Syria to create a “safe zone” along the border between the two countries.

“We have engaged with our Turkish allies on this question, in the first instance, to learn more about the proposal that President Erdoğan first voiced within recent days. We’ve done so from our embassy, from the department here as well.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price

The statement comes a day after Price said the US condemns any escalation and that a new offensive would undermine stability in the region.

Erdoğan on Monday said that Turkey would continue working on the safe zone that it started with earlier incursions into Syria.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news conference in Washington, US, March 10, 2022. (credit: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)US State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news conference in Washington, US, March 10, 2022. (credit: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)

“We will soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30-km-deep safe zone we established along our southern border,” Erdoğan said, according to the Associated Press.

Kurdish forces

Turkey has launched three offensives in Syria in order to, it has said, clear the area of Kurdish forces and to allow Syrian refugees to return to their country.

Ankara argues that the Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, known as the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) could attack Turkey or transfer arms to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has launched a decades-long insurgency within Turkey.

Turkey, the US and the European Union have classified the PKK as a terrorist organization.

However, the US has worked with the YPG in Syria to fight against ISIS.

The Turkish government has said that creating a safe zone in northern Syria would allow refugees from the country to return home.

The approximately 3.7 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey have created domestic pressure for Erdoğan and tensions have recently heightened between refugees and the local population ahead of scheduled elections next year.

Oytun Orhan, the coordinator for Levant Studies at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told The Media Line that there is a strong possibility the US would impose financial penalties against Turkey over a military operation.

“If Turkey conducts such an operation, this will anger the US side and will again raise the discussions that Turkey should be sanctioned,” he said.

Such a result would be especially hurtful to Turkey’s economy right now which is experiencing a major increase in inflation and declining currency.

Orhan said Erdoğan’s statement about creating a “safe zone” may be a way to gauge other countries’ positions.

“Turkey wants to test … its NATO allies’ reactions, whether they will support a Turkish offensive or not,” he said.

Orhan added that Erdoğan will attempt to improve conditions to launch an offensive by finding ways to decrease opposition from other countries.

One such way could be to bargain Turkey’s support for Finland and Sweden to join NATO in exchange for NATO members’ support for an operation against Kurdish forces.

Orhan said that the war in Ukraine has improved conditions for Turkey to launch an incursion into Syria because it has weakened and taken resources away from Russia’s military, which supports Ankara’s foe, Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Berk Esen, a fellow focused on Turkish politics at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says that Russia’s invasion into Ukraine and its weakened position has likely been part of Erdoğan’s calculations.

The Turkish president may also suspect that Europe and the US would be too distracted by the war in Ukraine to pay much attention to Syria.

While relations between Ankara and Washington have deteriorated over the last several years, partly due to Turkey moving closer to Russia, the current war has led to a warming of ties after Turkey supported NATO interests, such as by helping limit the Russian navy’s access to the Black Sea.

However, Ankara fighting against forces in Syria that are allied with the US could threaten that rapprochement.

“It’s going to certainly strain Turkish-US relations,” Esen said. “This is only going to worsen things.”

Esen also said that fighting Kurdish forces would appeal to Turkish voters, especially if Erdoğan suggests it will facilitate the return of refugees.

“His approval ratings will increase and he will have addressed both questions: the Kurdish question and the migration question,” Esen said.

“This is really going to leave the opposition in limbo,” he added.