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Erdogan threatens new military operation in northern Syria

This announcement comes amid tensions between Turkey and NATO over Erdogan's refusal to allow Finland and Sweden to join the Alliance. Moreover, relations between Ankara and Athens are going through a new controversy
AFP/BAKR ALKASEM  -   Soldados turcos patrullan la ciudad kurda siria del norte de Tal Abyad, en la frontera entre Siria y Turquía

AFP/BAKR ALKASEM  -   Turkish soldiers patrol the Kurdish town of Tal Abyad on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced new military operations in the south of the border with the aim of creating 30-kilometre-deep safe zones to "combat terrorist threats in these regions". These incursions - which will begin as soon as military, intelligence and security forces complete preparations - are likely to take place in northern Syria, where Ankara has been intervening since 2016 to combat the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organisation considered terrorist in Turkey, the United States and the European Union. 

"The main objective of these operations will be to target areas that are centres of attacks on our country and to establish safe zones," Erdogan said. The Turkish leader has also assured that the moves will focus on areas where Turkey receives most attacks and where they are planned.

In this regard, Middle East Eye's Ragip Soylu highlights Tal Rifaat, a town north of Aleppo where the Turkish army has recently intensified its attacks. According to the Rojava Information Centre (RIC), northwestern Syria has suffered 36 drone attacks in less than five months.

PHOTO/ Servicio de Prensa Presidencial vía AP  -   El presidente turco Recep Tayyip Erdogan
PHOTO/Presidential Press Service via AP - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Soylu also highlights the internal pressure against Ankara because of the high number of Syrian refugees in the country, 3.76 million. "There is a lot of domestic pressure to send Syrians back to their homeland. More areas controlled by Turkey could succeed in doing that," he explains, although he also acknowledges that it could be “really costly”. In early May Ankara announced a plan to repatriate one million displaced people to areas of northern Syria controlled by the Turkish army and allied Syrian militias. 

AFP/BAKR ALKASEM - Un combatiente sirio respaldado por Turquía sostiene una ametralladora ligera mientras mira durante ejercicios militares en el distrito de Sheikh Hadid en la región de Afrin, en el noroeste de Siria, el 5 de agosto de 2021
AFP/BAKR ALKASEM - A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria.

These new operations will follow others carried out in previous years: Euphrates Shield (2016), Olive Branch (2018) and Spring Shield (2020), considered the three major Turkish incursions into Syrian territory in order to shield the border from Daesh threats, as well as to fight Kurdish forces.

Ankara's latest operation south of its borders - Claw-Lock - began on 18 April and targeted PKK militias in northern Iraq. During the mission, Turkish troops eliminated 63 terrorists and managed to destroy 82 hideouts and more than 400 improvised explosive devices, according to Defence Minister Hulusi Akar. 

AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN - Un miembro de las Fuerzas de Seguridad Interna Kurdas de la Asayesh hace guardia en la ciudad de Ras al-Ain
AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN - A member of the Kurdish Internal Security Forces.

Iraq is another country where Turkey has increased its military activity in recent years despite the rejection of Iraqi political authorities. In 2020 and 2021, Ankara launched operations Tiger Claw and Eagle Claw with the same objectives as its assaults on the Syrian border.

Earlier this week, Turkish authorities confirmed the death of a PKK leader responsible for the organisation's activities in the Majrmur, Kirkuk and Suleimaniya regions of northern Iraq. According to the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, the militiaman, identified as Mehmet Erdogan - alias 'Ahmet Rubar' - was wanted by the Turkish judiciary for "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order" and "disturbing the unity and territorial integrity of the state".

AP/TURKISH DEFENSE MINISTRY  -   Un soldado hace guardia en el paso fronterizo de la frontera con Irak, en la provincia de Hakkari, Turquía
AP/TURKEY'S MINISTRY OF DEFENCE - A soldier stands guard at the border crossing at the border with Iraq in Hakkari province, Turkey.

The announcement of these new operations could strain relations between Ankara and its NATO partners. In addition to a new Turkish intervention against areas controlled by the YPG, a US-backed militia, Erdogan's government has repeatedly stated that it will not accept the entry of Sweden and Finland into the Alliance, contrary to the majority of NATO members.

New clash between Ankara and Athens 

Erdogan has also raised the tone against his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whom he said he "does not recognise". "We work with honest politicians who keep their word. For me there is no such Mitsotakis", the Turkish leader said.

AFP/ ARIS OIKONOMOU  -   El primer ministro griego Kyriakos Mitsotakis, dispuesto al diálogo bilateral
AFP/ ARIS OIKONOMOU - Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis

This new controversy between Ankara and Athens is a response to statements made by the Greek leader during his visit to the US Congress. Erdogan has accused his neighbour of trying to block the sale of US F-16 fighter jets to Turkey while in Washington. The Biden administration has been considering lifting the ban on Ankara, which was imposed after the Turkish government purchased the Russian S-400 defence system.

However, Mitsotakis reportedly asked US lawmakers to maintain the veto against Turkey. In late April, Greek authorities accused Turkish fighter jets of violating their airspace, which Athens said "undermines European security". 

AFP/YASSER AL-ZAYYAT - Un avión F-16 turco
AFP/YASSER AL-ZAYYAT - A Turkish F-16 aircraft

"The last thing NATO needs at a time when our goal is to help Ukraine defeat Russia's aggression is another source of instability on NATO's southeastern flank," the Greek leader said, DW reports. "And I ask you to take this into account when making defence procurement decisions regarding the eastern Mediterranean," he added.

Mitsokatis' remarks have infuriated Erdogan, who said the two had agreed "not to include third countries in their dispute". Despite their NATO membership, Turkey and Greece have a long-standing rivalry. The two countries clash over the Cyprus issue as well as maritime, territorial and air sovereignty issues.

Last year Ankara and Athens agreed to begin talks to try to normalise and improve relations, although no significant results have yet been achieved. Moreover, this new rift promises to hamper Greek-Turkish dialogue. "We were supposed to have a strategic council meeting this year. There is no one called Mitsotakis on my agenda any more," Erdogan stressed. Likewise, the Turkish president has accused the Greek executive of harbouring the organisation led by Fethullah Gülen, the religious figure to whom Ankara attributes the failed coup of 2016.   

PHOTO/Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores de Turquía via REUTERS  -   El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores turco, Mevlut Cavusoglu, y su homólogo griego, Nikos Dendias, en una rueda de prensa en Ankara, Turquía, el 15 de abril de 2021
PHOTO/Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs via REUTERS - Greece and Turkey have been trying to bring their positions closer over the past year, but there are still many disagreements between the two countries.

All these new fronts in Turkish foreign policy are affecting the country's already battered economy. "Turkish markets don’t like looming crisis with the West after Erdoğan’s statement on Greece, Syria, Sweden and Finland yesterday. Turkish Lira dips to lowest in 6 months, 16 Lira per Dollar now", writes journalist Ragip Solyu on Twitter.