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Turkey invades Syria

What happened: Turkish forces launched a ground operation into Kurdish-controlled north-eastern Syria last night, after conducting air-strikes in the region yesterday. According to the Kurdish Red Crescent, seven civilians have been killed, two of them children, and at least 19 critically injured.

  • Airstrikes took place throughout the day yesterday, focusing on the border towns of Tel Abayd, Ras al-Ein, al-Qamishly and Al Malikiyah, although Kurdish sources reported air strikes on a YPG base as deep as 50km into Syria
  • The focus of the Turkish incursion was Tel Abayd, with at least one attempt to enter the city successfully repelled, according to reports
  • The SDF shelled sites on the Turkish side of the border in retaliation, including in the city of Akcakale
  • In a statement, President Donald Trump said: “The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear that this operation is a bad idea.” He added: “Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all ISIS fighters held captive remain in prison”
  • According to a report in the Kurdish news agency ANHA, some women at the Al-Hol camp, where 70,000 ISIS women and children are being kept, escaped after a riot.
  • The US military said it has taken custody of two British detainees, part of the ISIS-cell nicknamed “the Beatles” who were responsible for torturing and killing western hostages.

Context: The Turkish operation has been imminent ever since President Trump announced plans to withdraw US soldiers from the Turkish-Syrian border, notwithstanding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence that “the United States didn’t give Turkey a green light.”

  • Turkey views the YPG, the dominant militia in the umbrella SDF which controls north-eastern Syria as a threat, due to its links with the PKK, which Turkey has been at war with for decades and is a banned terrorist organisation in many countries including the UK. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the aim was to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor” on the border.
  • Turkey also wants to establish a zone in north eastern Syria to house some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

Looking ahead: Turkey’s military operations is currently limited to predominantly Arab, strategically important, border towns on the Turkish-Syrian border. Erdogan frequently speaks of a 32 kilometre safe zone to achieve his objectives. It is unlikely he will go beyond this limit, due to the significant risks involved.

  • Erdogan is facing international opposition. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed ‘serious concerns’ about the operation last night and it was condemned by the US, EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has proposed sanctions be imposed on Turkey by the US Congress.
  • The SDF will fight fiercely for its territory, and Turkey will have to deal with SDF attacks on the Turkish side of the border in response.
  • One key issue is the ongoing detention of ISIS fighters. The SDF have said they will redeploy forces to confront the Turkish invasion and this could weaken the security of detention facilities. If Turkish forces ultimately take territory containing these facilities, will they continue to detain ISIS fighters or seek international assistance to repatriate foreign fighters?
  • The extent of the US pullback is critical. If US troops just withdraw from border towns, but remain as a buffer between Turkey and the Kurds, Turkey will almost certainly limit the scope of its operation.