Middle East

Will Erdogan finally deliver on his vow to invade northern Syria?

By Nadeen Ebrahim, CNN

Abu Dhabi, UAE CNN  —  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past week launched a series of airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, and has warned that a ground operation will soon follow.

The aerial operation that began on Sunday and his warnings three days later come after an explosion rocked Istanbul a week ago, killing at least six people and injuring more than 80 others. Turkish officials blamed Kurdish separatists for the explosion, a claim denied by Kurdish groups.

Erdogan said the strikes were “just the beginning” and that the Turkish Armed Forces “will topple the terrorists by land at the most convenient time.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the defense ministry claimed that 471 targets had been hit and that “254 terrorists have been neutralized” since the start of the assault, which has been dubbed “Operation Claw-Sword.” CNN can’t independently verify the number of casualties.

But Erdogan has been pledging an incursion into northern Syria since May. He had previously said that an invasion was meant to create a 30-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” that would be emptied of fighters allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that Turkey and the US deem a terrorist organization.

Analysts have said that Erdogan had stopped short of acting on his vow to invade because he hadn’t secured a green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has a large military presence in Syria.

But on Wednesday, senior Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev said that Moscow has tried to convince Turkey to “refrain from conducting full-scale ground operations.”

The northern Syrian area targeted by Erdogan includes the three key towns of Manbij, Tel Rifaat and Kobani, which are under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The SDF, backed by Washington, had been instrumental in the fight against ISIS since 2014. But its backbone is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Turkey considers a wing of the PKK and seeks to eliminate.

CNN asked Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, how likely the Turkish leader is to follow through with his pledge this time.

Turkey has been saying that it will begin its next incursion for months. Are today’s claims any different or more serious?

I think that taking into consideration the previous Turkish incursions into northern Syria, this time, something doesn’t seem to be moving forward as fast. Typically, Turkish incursions follow one or two days of cross-border shelling by artillery and drone strikes, and then the military moves in. This time, the cross-border artillery shelling and drone strikes have been going on almost for a week, and [there has been] no [ground] action. So that means something is missing.

How do you see the Kremlin’s recent comments on a potential incursion? Do you see it as a green light?

Now usually, when Turkey goes into northern Syria, it needs to get a green light from two superpowers militarily present in Syria, that is the US and Russia.

But Russia is not aligned. I think Russia is wanting more before it green-lights a full-scale Turkish incursion. What Russia wants is for the Turkish government in Ankara to engage the Assad regime and to commit to ending the war, sort of in a global handshake. And of course, that kind of discussion will take days, if not weeks and months. So I think until we see that kind of discussion maturing and coming to a conclusion, Putin will not give his green light to a Turkish incursion.

Given the growing importance of Turkey to the West amid the Ukraine war, are Western states likely to turn a blind eye to an incursion?

The US has typically objected to Turkish incursions because they target the YPG. But the US has relied on the YPG to fight ISIS. So, it’s never happy when Turkey targets the YPG.

But this time, things are different. [Firstly], the big strategic picture is changing. Turkey’s importance [to] the US has shifted as US policy zooms out of the desert [Middle East], and focuses on the [Eurasian] steppe, or zooms out of Syria and into Ukraine.

So, the US view is that Turkey’s strategic importance has increased. That’s the long-term shift.

In the short term, there’s also a tactical view [in] Washington, which is that Turkey has objected to NATO’s Nordic expansion. I think Ankara has leveraged its hand well by raising objections to Sweden’s accession. And so right now, Washington really doesn’t want to irritate Turkey. And I think that applies to all key NATO allies.

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