Turkish forces and Syrian rebel allies will cross the border with Syria “shortly”, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s communications director said, as Turkey looks to begin a military intervention against Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria.
Turkey has been poised to advance into northeast Syria since US troops began vacating the area on Sunday in an abrupt policy shift by US President Donald Trump that was widely criticised in Washington as a betrayal of the US’s allies, the Kurds.
“The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army, will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly,” Fahrettin Altun said in a Washington Post column published on Wednesday.
“Turkey has no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralise a long-standing threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local population from the yoke of armed thugs,” he wrote.
- Will the ‘safe zone’ idea come to pass?
- What will happen to ISIL prisoners during Turkey’s operation?
- How a battle between Turkey and the Kurdish YPG could go
The Turkish military was expected to team up with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), with which it worked previously in two other operations in northern Syria in recent years.
Altun added fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – an armed group Turkey considers a “terrorist” organisation – in Syria could either defect or Ankara would have to “stop them from disrupting” Turkey’s struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group.
Turkey has said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil, but the scheme has alarmed some Western allies and military analysts as much as the risks posed by the military operation itself.
On Wednesday, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told state-run Anadolu news agency that Turkey’s preparations and deployments for its planned military offensive are continuing.
The defence ministry on Tuesday said “all preparations for the operation” had been completed. Turkish troops have been gathering on Turkey’s side of the border since Monday night.
The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Turkish forces were attacking near the border.
“The Turkish military is shelling one of our points on #SereKaniye Border with Turkey,” the SDF said in a tweet late on Tuesday, referencing the key border town of Ras al-Ain. No injuries were reported.
It was one of the places from which US troops withdrew on Monday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, US officials, who were not authorised to discuss details of military intelligence, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that there are between 5,000 and 10,000 Turkish troops along the border, apparently ready to go.
The officials said they expect the Turks to begin with air raids, followed by barrages from heavy artillery along the border and the movement of ground troops into Syria.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Akcakale along Turkey’s border with Syria, said: “All evidence suggests that the operation could be imminent.”
“Last night, we passed dozens of military vehicles heading in this direction – APCs [armoured personnel carriers], what we believe to be trucks carrying ammunition, and flatbed trucks transporting tanks,” he said.
Stratford said buses of Free Syrian Army fighters were also transported from northern Aleppo in Syria across the border into Turkey on Tuesday.
“They are staying at a camp close by, and it’s understood they will be joining the Turks in any sort of ground force operation,” he added.
Civilians already beleaguered by eight years of conflict are concerned.
“If war erupts, people will be vulnerable and displaced. Where should we go? You ask anyone they say we are not leaving. But eventually, we will be displaced,” Summaiyah Mohammed, a Kurdish citizen in northern Syria, told Kurdish broadcaster Rudaw.
Mass prison break?
Jonathan Schanzer, a Syria scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said even a limited Turkish incursion into northern Syria could quickly escalate.
“The president is doubling down on this – seems to be reversing course,” Schanzer told AP. “He’s trying to convey to the American people that he’s made the right decision. Of course, Erdogan is going to see this as a green light.”
Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, also pointed out a frightening potential knock-on effect if Turkey is allowed to attack the Kurds: a mass prison break by ISIL detainees.
Currently, militia members are guarding a series of prisons in Syria holding thousands of ISIL fighters.
Those guards would presumably rush to the front lines if their comrades faced the threat of the Turkish military machine.
“The only foreign policy issue that Americans really care about is terrorism and the fear of terrorism,” Wittes told AP. “The fear of ISIS 3.0 is very tangible and something that speaks to Americans.”