The uptick in tension between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish militants could result in a new ground operation by Ankara, experts said, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vows more comprehensive military action amid the rising nationalist sentiment in the country with elections six months away.
Two people were killed and 10 wounded Monday in a mortar attack by Syrian Kurdish militants in Gaziantep province in southern Turkey, officials said.
According to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, one of the projectiles hit a schoolyard in Gaziantep’s Karkamis town, killing a teacher and a child, and wounding 10 people, including a pregnant woman.
Officials said schools in the area will be closed for the remainder of the week.
The attack, which officials blame on the Syrian Kurdish militants, came after a series of airstrikes by the Turkish military in neighboring Iraq and Syria over the weekend.
Ankara says the airstrikes were in retaliation for last week’s deadly bombing in a busy area in Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul.
Turkish authorities said Kurdish militants were behind the bombing, which killed six people and wounded dozens. The Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch, People’s Defense Units (YPG) denied involvement.
But Erdogan indicated that another ground operation in Syria is possible, saying Turkey’s military actions would not be limited to airstrikes.
The Turkish military have launched three ground incursions in the past in northern Syria, where it says Kurdish militants backed by the United States want to establish an independent Kurdish state.
Speaking to journalists during his return flight from Qatar, where he attended the opening ceremony of FIFA World Cup 2022, Erdogan said, “I always said we might come suddenly one night. We were not saying this in vain.”
“It is out of the question that this would be limited to air operations. Our Ministry of Defense and chief of staff will make a decision on how big a unit from our ground forces would be needed. We will engage in consultations and then will take our steps accordingly,“ he added.
The United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization while it backs its Syrian affiliate, Syrian Democratic Forces, led by YPG, in the fight against ISIS in Syria. U.S. support for the YPG has caused tension between the two allies.
"The United States expresses its sincere condolences for the loss of civilian life in Syria and Turkey. We urge de-escalation in Syria to protect civilian life and support the common goal of defeating ISIS. We continue to oppose any uncoordinated military action in Iraq that violates Iraq’s sovereignty," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Ankara condemned the recent attack in Gaziantep, calling it “violent and unjustified” in a statement shared on its official Twitter account, saying “The U.S. Mission joins the people of Türkiye in mourning the three innocent lives lost today in Karkamis.”
“We are NATO allies but unfortunately it was the United States that sent thousands of supplies and equipment, ammunition and weapons to the terror region in Syria,” Erdogan said after the Monday’s attack, noting that he raised the issue with U.S. President Joe Biden as he has with other U.S. presidents, including Trump and Obama.
Presidents Biden and Erdogan met on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Indonesia last week. According to the readout provided by the White House, Biden “expressed his deep condolences to President Erdogan and the people of Turkiye on the acts of violence in Istanbul and made clear we stand with our NATO Ally.”
Pentagon opposed to military action
Washington is known to have long opposed a major incursion by Turkey because it would disrupt the stability in the region.
The U.S. Department of Defense said on Monday that it “continues to oppose any military action that destabilizes the situation in Syria or violates Iraq’s sovereignty through military actions uncoordinated with the Iraqi government.”
“These actions threaten our shared goals, including to continue the fight against ISIS and make sure the group can never resurge,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Phillip Ventura told VOA.
Domestic politics and election calculus
Turkish President Erdogan threatened a military incursion last summer, but those plans met with pushback from several actors in the region, including Russia, the United States and Iran.
The deadly bombing in Istanbul followed by the recent attack in Gaziantep, both blamed on Kurdish militants, increased the likelihood for the threat of military action to materialize.
Experts speaking to VOA believe it’s very likely, if not imminent, that Turkey will launch a new ground operation in Syria in the coming months.
Max Hoffman, the senior director of National Security and International Policy at Center for American Progress focusing on Turkey and Kurdish regions, says one of the reasons for the heightened tensions is Erdogan’s domestic political calculus as he faces an election battle in six months.
“We have history as a guide here. Three of the four major Turkish interventions in northern Syria have come in the run-up to Turkish elections. I don’t think that’s the only consideration but it’s certainly an important one. At some point it’s very likely that we’ll see a significant incursion,” he said.
James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, appears to agree. He told VOA there is a strong nationalist sentiment in Turkey right now, and Erdogan may see the military incursion as a way to increase his chances of winning the election.
Jeffrey served as the Secretary’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS until 2020 before he joined the Wilson Center in Washington.
Both experts predict that, in the event of a new military incursion by Turkey, the level and tone of the reaction from the United States would depend on where Turkish military would target in Syria.
“If it's a major Turkish attack on, for instance, Kobani, I think you'll see a stronger U.S. response,” Hoffman tells VOA.
Jeffrey says that although the United States would prefer there be no military incursion into Syria, “Washington is less concerned about possible military action in the northwest of Syria as opposed to the northeast.”
In the broader context of Turkey-U.S. relations, Ankara has yet to ratify Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership as the Russian invasion in Ukraine continues.
Turkey has requested to purchase F-16s and modernization kits from the United States and a possible sale would require the approval by U.S. Congress.
Max Hoffman says a major military operation by Turkey in Kobani would not help the overall picture, adding that “there are important voices on Capitol Hill particularly in the Senate whose positions would be affected by a possible Turkish incursion.”
This story originated in VOA’s Turkish service. VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.