Erdogan prepares for a new land grab - opinion

If he does carry out his plan, Erdogan will undoubtedly enhance his political standing at home, ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023.

 TURKEY’S PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to journalists at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this month. (photo credit: G20 Media Center/Reuters)
TURKEY’S PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to journalists at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this month.
(photo credit: G20 Media Center/Reuters)

On November 19, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began launching air, drone and artillery strikes on north-eastern Syrian towns and cities. Over four days at least 100 strikes were recorded, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed force in the area, began reporting military and civilian deaths. Erdogan has now announced that the air strikes were only the beginning and that he is preparing to launch a land operation when the time is right.

“We are continuing the air operation,” he said in a speech to his AK party members in parliament, “and will come down hard on the terrorists from land, at the most convenient time for us.”

He asserts that Turkey is more determined than ever to secure its southern border by seizing a “security corridor” running along it west to east – territory that is nominally part of sovereign Syria. “We have formed part of this corridor,” he announced, and “will take care of it starting with places such as Tal Rifaat, Manbij and Ayn al-Arab (Kobane), which are the sources of trouble.”

The SDF, which incorporates a large force of Kurdish fighters known as the YPG, is viewed by Erdogan as an arm of his domestic Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK, a militant political group seeking Kurdish independence or at least autonomy has not been averse to pursuing its political ends by way of armed attacks within Turkey. Erdogan has been fighting it at home for decades and has proscribed it as a terrorist organization.

 A TURKISH soldier waves a flag on Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria, in January 2018 (credit: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters) A TURKISH soldier waves a flag on Mount Barsaya, northeast of Afrin, Syria, in January 2018 (credit: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Turkey's history of operations against Kurds in Syria and Iraq

For some years he has also been combating Kurdish militias in northern Syria and Iraq, drawing no distinction between them and the PKK. What puts Turkey at odds with much world opinion is that the United States, the EU and many other Western countries back the Kurd-dominated SDF in the common fight against Islamic State (ISIS).

Although Erdogan’s air offensive has clearly been planned for a long time as a preliminary to a full-scale ground offensive, the trigger was a bomb attack on the afternoon of November 13 in the center of Istanbul. Six people lost their lives. Official Turkish statements laid the blame firmly at the door of the PKK and YPG, although both organizations have denied any involvement in the incident. No group has claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, Istanbul’s Chief Public Prosecutors’ Office has opened an investigation.

Erdogan’s first military incursion beyond Turkey’s borders was in 2016 when his troops invaded Syria’s quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region – the area known as Rojava. It resulted in Turkish forces seizing and occupying Kurdish-inhabited territory which, he announced, was to be a sort of buffer or safe zone protecting Turkey’s southern border.

THAT OPERATION and two subsequent efforts, obviously did not satisfy Erdogan. On April 18, 2022, Turkey launched a new ground and air offensive, named Operation Claw Lock, this time against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq. Supported by helicopters and drones, Turkish jets and artillery struck suspected targets of the PKK, and then commando troops crossed into Kurdish-occupied Iraq by land or were airlifted by helicopters.

It was in August that Erdogan announced that he was planning a new military offensive in northern Syria. He has lived up to his word.

Meanwhile, the US-supported SDF is braced for an assault by Turkish forces that Washington has said not only risks a breach with its NATO ally Turkey but a resurgence of ISIS in Syria. According to the Pentagon’s press secretary: “Recent airstrikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of US personnel who are working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than 10 thousand ISIS detainees... Immediate de-escalation is necessary in order to... ensure the safety and security of personnel on the ground committed to the defeat-ISIS mission.”

In an interview with The Washington Post on November 23, General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the SDF’s top commander, arguing that Western pressure could avert a ground operation, urged Western allies to oppose further Turkish attacks,

“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening the ground operation for months,” said Abdi, “but he could launch this operation now. This war, if it happens, won’t benefit anybody. It will affect many lives. There will be massive waves of displacement and a humanitarian crisis.”

“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening the ground operation for months, but he could launch this operation now. This war, if it happens, won’t benefit anybody. It will affect many lives. There will be massive waves of displacement and a humanitarian crisis.”

General Mazloum Kobane Abdi

Russia has added its voice to the plea to Erdogan to cancel his planned invasion. Talks about the Syrian civil war and Syria’s future are ongoing between Iran, Turkey and Russia in the Kazakh capital, Astana. On November 23 the senior Russian negotiator, Alexander Lavrentyev, said that Moscow had asked Ankara to refrain from a full-scale ground offensive in Syria. “We hope our arguments will be heard in Ankara,” said Lavrentyev, “and other ways of resolving the problem will be found.” Sound advice, equally applicable nearer home.

There has always been an ulterior motive for Erdogan’s land grabs along his southern border. In addition to weakening his Kurdish opponents, he is seeking a way to rid Turkey of the millions of Syrian refugees who fled their country during its eleven years of civil strife. His idea has been to resettle them below the Turkish border in the so-called safe zone. The refugees, however, are far from keen to move to what is a heavily militarized and highly populated war zone, even if it is a return to their native land, Syria.

If he does carry out his plan, Erdogan will undoubtedly enhance his political standing at home, ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023. So it is more likely than not that Erdogan’s new ground offensive will take place and that in addition to widespread disruption and loss of life in northern Syria, vast numbers of reluctant Syrian refugees will be relocated to his safe zone.

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.