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Turkish troops move to Syrian border

What happened: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that the Turkish armed forces are ready to launch a military operation in north-eastern Syria after US President Donald Trump announced American forces would withdraw from the area. The US has approximately 1,000 personnel in the area, but there was significant confusion over the extent of the US withdrawal.

  • A senior US official briefed journalists yesterday that the US was not pulling out of Syria, but that 50 US Special Ops personnel were moving to different locations and bases.
  • President Trump tweeted yesterday, after a Republican backlash, that if Turkey launched an offensive which he “considers to be off limits,” he “will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” (sic).
  • The Republican backlash included comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said the withdrawal “would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime,” and Lindsey Graham, who said the decision “to abandon our Kurdish allies … will put every radical Islamist on steroids”.
  • The Kurdish news agency Hawar said US forces were evacuating two observation posts in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Din, which it jointly patrolled with the Kurds.

Context: Since August Turkey and Kurdish forces have been separated by a buffer zone along the Turkey-Syria border composed of 3 parts: a 5km strip jointly controlled by the US and Turkey (in which the observation posts from which the US has reportedly withdrawn are based), a 9km strip of US control, and a 4km strip which the US holds as leverage. An aerial safe zone extends 32km from the border.

  • Turkey views the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the militia which controls the eastern area of Syria, as a threat because of its inclusion of the YPG, which Turkey alleges to be associated with the PKK. Turkey and the PKK have been engaged in an intermittent armed conflict since 1984 and the PKK is a banned terrorist organisation in many countries, including the UK.
  • Turkey is also under strain because of the 3,667,435 (according to the UN High Commision for Refugees) Syrian refugees currently in the country. Turkey wants to resettle significant numbers in north-eastern Syria, which the Kurds vehemently oppose as it would alter the demography of what they hope to be a future autonomous territory.
  • There is significant sympathy in the West towards the Kurdish-led SDF, due to the leading role it played in the fight against ISIS, and the 11,000 Kurdish fighters killed in those operations.
  • US policy in Syria under Trump has been made on a whim, only to be walked back – in December 2018 Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria, an announcement which has not been implemented.

Looking ahead: Erdogan has long demanded a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, 300 miles in length and 20 miles deep. It therefore seems highly likely that he will launch some kind of operation, but he will have to calibrate carefully, after Trump’s recent statement.

  • The Kurds will not give up without a fight, something Erdogan will also have to consider. SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said the SDF would “defend north-east Syria at all costs”. It is possible that Erdogan opts for a more limited operation confined to a few areas close to the Turkish border.
  • If the Kurds do see the US winding down its commitments significantly, expect them to look rapidly to alternative sources of protection.
  • Western countries, including the UK, will have to urgently start discussions about what to do with the tens of thousands of ISIS fighters in mostly SDF-run prisons in the event of a full Turkish operation.