President Erdogan intensifies threats of a new cross-border incursion

Jun 3, 2022

As widely reported, multiple statements by President Tayyip Recep Erdogan in recent weeks have increased concerns over an impending, new cross-border operation by the Turkish military into YPG support zones in northern Syria. Speaking following a cabinet meeting on 23 May, the President said Turkey would “soon take new steps regarding the incomplete portions of the project we started on the 30-km deep safe zone we established along our southern border” – a reference to long-standing Turkish intent to establish a buffer zone between the southern Turkish border and SDF controlled areas in northern Syria. Further details were not provided by the deliberately vague statement, however three days later the National Security Council said “existing and future operations” along the southern border were “necessary” to protect the country’s national interest.

Erdogan has since repeatedly referred to an impending invasion, telling state-linked media channels on 29 May that the operation may happen “suddenly one night” and that Turkey does not need anyone’s permission to renew operations. A readout by the Turkish Presidency also indicated that a possible incursion was discussed between Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin this week, with the president stressing that efforts to create a “terror-free zone” in northern Syria were “incomplete.”

The credibility of the Turkish threat of another large-scale invasion remains difficult to judge, with the rhetoric employed by Erdogan and other Turkish officials deliberately vague. Turkish efforts to establish the buffer zone remain ongoing as part of continuous operations in northern Syria, and it is difficult to judge to what extent recent statements refer to an expansion or a mere continuation of these operations. Earlier this spring, the Turkish military announced the start of a “new” offensive in northern Iraq – Operation Claw-Lock – however, the operation is more appropriately seen as an extension of previous incursions. Likewise, the Turkish military has launched four separate operations of varying scope and ambition in northern Syria since 2016 as part of standing efforts to neutralize the YPG.

The threats may also be politically motivated and coincide with Turkey’s widely reported opposition to Finland and Sweden’s bids to join NATO. Both countries formally submitted applications to join the alliance in May however the Turkish President has been vocal in his opposition due to Sweden’s alleged sheltering of PKK-linked individuals. The impending incursion may therefore be more broadly linked to efforts by Turkish to strengthen its diplomatic leverage against the US and Russia, both of whom remain opposed to an escalation in northern Syria. Combined with the possibility of blocking NATO enlargement, the threat puts Erdogan in a position of leverage to extract concessions in negotiations with both sides in exchange for withdrawing plans for an incursion.

Kurdish and US officials treat the threat seriously however, and US officials have repeatedly called on Turkey to refrain from conducting additional military action. Earlier this week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke on the phone with Presidential spokesperson  Ibrahim Kalin, urging the Turkish government to refrain from conducting additional military operations. In his weekly press briefing, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price likewise reiterated US concerns and called for all sides to maintain current ceasefire lines and warned that a new offensive would “further undermine regional security.

Local reports note an uptick in military activity in recent weeks, coinciding with the intensification witnessed in northern Iraq. This, alongside the visible concerns expressed by the US, is assessed to add credibility to the possibility of an impending expansion in the near term. Related activity should be monitored closely given the associated impact on regional tensions, especially in PKK-linked support zones in northern Syria and Iraq.

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