Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly has warned that force will be used to end the presence of Kurdish groups YPG and PKK in Syria and Iraq.
“We do not differentiate between terrorist organizations. Daesh, YPG, al-Qaida are all the same for us,” Erdogan said Wednesday at a press conference, with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Erdogan said the nation’s forces will continue to carry out military operations across its southern borders. “It is better for them to live in fear than us being worried about terror attacks,” Erdogan said Sunday, warning of a military cross-border operation.
Turkish jets struck the Iraqi Sinjar region last month, targeting the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG and PKK.
Ankara asserts that the YPG is an affiliate of the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish government for greater minority rights, and is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
But Washington views the YPG as the most effective force in fighting so-called Islamic State in Syria.
Backed by U.S. forces, the Kurdish militia has made sweeping gains in the region against the jihadists.
“As we speak, the PKK is building a new state,” according to political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, who says such success is forcing Ankara’s hand.
“I understand the Syrian Kurds’ own aspirations to form a new state. But the human infrastructure, or governance infrastructure, is captured by PKK. The PYD and YPG is nothing but PKK, and Turkey cannot allow that,” said Yesilada.
Turkish infantry and armor are steadily being built up along the border of regions under YPG control. Analysts suggest any incursion could seek to break up the corridor of territory carved out by the Syrian Kurdish militia, with Turkish forces seeking to work with local Arab tribes in the region.
In a move widely seen to deter further Turkish military action against the YPG, Washington and Moscow have deployed armed forces in Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish regions close to the Turkish frontier.
The deployment is part of a growing U.S. military presence, “In Northern Syria there are four forward operation bases used by US armed forces as well as two military airstrips expanded, so the deployment is not insignificant,” points out Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat who widely served across the region.
A Turkish presidential advisor has warned US forces could be inadvertently hit by future attacks. “It doesn’t matter whether they [U.S.] are patrolling there. If those PKK terrorists continue their activities within Turkey,” said presidential advisor Ilnur Cevik in a radio interview Wednesday. “Suddenly you could happen to see there are few missiles that hit them [Americans] accidentally, too!”
Cevik later attempted to walk back the comment in a tweet,“Turkey has never and will never hit its allies anywhere, and that includes the U.S. in Syria.”
Experts warn that any cross-border operation carries major risks.
“This would be an adventure, because Turkey has enough problems within the country, and Turkey has enough problems beyond its borders. Already there are substantial Turkish forces in Syria,” said retired general Haldun Solmazturk, a veteran of past Turkish military incursions into Iraq against the PKK. “The last thing Turkey needs is a further intervention and further escalation, not only with the United States, but with Russia, with Damascus, with Arab countries, or Iran. I mean Turkey has already isolated itself enough.”
During his Sochi meeting, Erdogan reportedly challenged Putin over Russian forces supporting Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG. Erdogan also is expected to press the issue during his meeting later this month with President Donald Trump.
Analysts suggest the threats to use the large Turkish military deployments on the Iraqi and Syrian border could be just a ploy by Erdogan to gain leverage with Moscow and Washington. But last month’s Turkish airstrikes in Iraq, which took Turkey’s allies by surprise, are a warning of the unpredictability of Ankara.
“It also gives signal to the world, to coalition partners, that if Ankara believes it’s being pushed into a corner, it can resort to military means, and so it keeps all options open on the table,” oberved retired senior Turkish diplomat Selcen.
The growing centralization of power in Erdogan’s hands, which got a further boost in last month’s referendum, is seen as another factor making it hard to determine whether the president is bluffing over a cross-border operation.
“It cannot be ruled out, because President Erdogan is the single ultimate decision maker within the Turkish political system,” points out Solmazturk, who heads the Ankara based think tank 21st Century Turkey Institute. “He is able to make any decision personally alone, overruling any opposing views. He has proven as before an unpredictable person, proven to change his mind from this hour to the next.”
With rumors of a possible early election, the Turkish president also is courting nationalist voters.
Analysts point out Erdogan is well aware that the Turkish army’s Operation Euphrates Shield into Syria, against both the YPG and IS, was overwhelmingly supported by the public.