Turkey planned Syria military operation after Russian troops withdrew over Ukraine
Turkey decided to announce it would undertake a military operation in northern Syria after Russia moved a significant number of troops out of the country due to the war in Ukraine, Turkish military sources familiar with the situation have told Middle East Eye.
The sources said the timing of the decision, announced earlier this week, was also a result of Ankara’s ongoing offensive against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq, where it is bidding to end PKK infiltration by sealing the last remaining land corridor between Turkey and Iraq.
“The recent PKK activities to transfer fresh forces and ammunition to Iraq from Syria triggered a response," one of the military sources told MEE.
"These two operations must continue simultaneously.
"This isn’t solely about Russia getting bogged down in Ukraine. There are Ankara’s own concerns and intelligence on PKK activities in Syria.”
The operation will be the fourth of its kind mounted by Ankara in northern Syria since 2016, and will be conducted with the declared purpose of combating threats to Turkey from the Islamic State (IS) group and PKK-allied Syrian Kurdish groups, as well as enabling the resettlement of internally displaced Syrians.
Earlier operations - namely Euphrates Shield in 2016, Olive Branch in 2018 and Peace Spring in 2019 - saw Turkey and its Syrian allies seize border territory previously controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG), a group that Ankara says has direct links to the PKK.
Turkey and western governments, including the United States and the European Union, designate the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the spearhead, still control large swathes of northeast Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this week that the military would target two key areas west of the River Euphrates.
"We are taking another step in establishing a 30km security zone along our southern border," said Erdogan on Wednesday.
'We are taking another step in establishing a 30km security zone along our southern border'
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
"We will clean up Tal Rifaat and Manbij," he said, referring to two northern Syrian cities held by the SDF.
Tal Rifaat is significant due to its strategic position, sandwiched between Turkish and Syrian government forces, and has sometimes become a point of frustration for Ankara due to repeated deadly YPG attacks from the area on Turkish positions.
“The YPG has conducted at least 100 attacks on Syrian rebel-held territories and Turkish military bases in the form of rockets, anti-tank missiles, cannon fire and multiple rocket launchers,” the military source said.
The source added that capture of the Menagh airbase, which the SDF took over in 2016 with the help of Russian airstrikes, had also been an advantage for the group.
Ankara claims that since the YPG captured the area from Syrian rebels in 2016, 250,000 Syrian Arabs have fled Tal Rifaat for the Turkish-controlled Syrian city of Azaz.
“Tal Rifaat is hosting 60 percent of the clean water in the region and that alone makes it a strategic target,” the source added.
“The return of displaced locals and the management of the water resources is fundamental. It will revive agriculture and encourage returns.”
Turkish military sources say Russian forces, which had the second-largest presence in Tal Rifaat, have now largely left the area.
The source said Ankara does not expect Syrian government forces to try to repel any Turkish offensive.
“The [Turkish] military and Syrian National Army have already completed their preparations and may begin the operation at any moment,” the source added.
“Russia is finding it hard to resupply its troops in Tal Rifaat and has already abandoned some of its bases near Aleppo to Iranians.”
Other Turkish officials told MEE that Iran would be more concerned by any Turkish move into Tal Rifaat than the Russians, since Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp-allied militias are actively participating in Syrian government efforts to guard northern Aleppo.
“The Iranians don’t want Syrian rebel forces to have a presence near Aleppo,” one of the Turkish officials said.
The military sources said that Turkey’s bilateral deals with Russia, and specifically with the US on Manbij, had been very clear.
Since 2016, Washington has repeatedly said that it would clear YPG elements out of Manbij but has not done so.
Russia, on the other hand, is continuing to try to convince Ankara to stage an offensive in Kobane - which would provoke a much larger western outcry and possible sanctions due to its significance for the anti-IS fight.
The sources say that Turkey's military continues to evaluate the situation, and has plans laid out to seize Kobane if the political leadership deems it necessary.
The sources said that Turkish military preparations for an offensive in Tal Rifaat and Manbij had been completed, and that it could begin at any time.
Along with Tal Rifaat, Manbij would be able to host thousands of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
Erdogan's government has been under fire due to the presence of 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which itself is facing increasing economic hardship.
Capitalising on increasing animosity towards Syrian refugees, opposition politicians have been promising to send them back if they are elected to government.