ISTANBUL, TURKEY - Emboldened by the Turkish-led forces’ capture of the Syrian town of Afrin, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is vowing to expand his military operation across Syria, raising the risk of a confrontation with Washington.
Turkish media celebrated the seizure of Afrin Sunday from the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia as a historic victory. Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey and has been at odds with Washington for supporting the YPG in the U.S. war against Islamic State militants.
A senior Turkish presidential advisor made clear the capture of Afrin town was also a victory against Turkey’s western allies.
“You cannot push the Turks around. You cannot jeopardize our national security. If you do then we just march on and undertake any sacrifice to protect our vital interests,” wrote Ilnur Cevik in his column for Sabah newspaper. “We did that before, we did that in Afrin today and we will do it in Manbij and the east of the Euphrates in Syria tomorrow,” Cevik wrote.
Speaking at a ceremony in Ankara Monday, Erdogan said troops would target the Syrian city of Manbij, as well as Ayn al-Arab, also known as Kobani, and other towns along the border to the east of the Euphrates River. The areas are all controlled by YPG forces where around 2,000 U.S. troops are also stationed as part of the war against the Islamic State group.
Ankara has called for an end to Washington's support of the YPG and has repeatedly warned that U.S. forces could be targeted in any operation against the Kurdish militia, and tensions are rising as Turkey turns its attention to Manbij. Erdogan has declared that after the fall of Afrin, Manbij would be the next target of Ankara’s military offensive against the YPG.
The speed of Afrin’s capture is likely to have wrong-footed Washington, “They were expecting the situation in Afrin to last longer so that they have time to work out some policy over Manbij and East of Euphrates,” points out columnist Semih Idiz of the Al Monitor website.
“It also comes at a moment of transition in the State Department from a person who is more of an interlocutor for Turkey, i.e. Rex Tillerson, to someone considered more of a hawk,” Idiz said, referring to Tillerson's replacement, Mike Pompeo. “So Washington is having to recalibrate its position now in view of this latest development,” Idiz added.
Despite Erdogan’s threats of a new offensive against the YPG, some analysts suggest there is still time to avoid a U.S.-Turkish confrontation.
“There will be a postponement (in operations targeting Manbij) until the appointment of Pompeo. Then we see how important is Manbij to the U.S., when foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu sits down with Pompeo,” predicts former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in the region and in Washington.
“We need to give time to Washington because otherwise it means Turkish forces will fight U.S. forces in Manbij, which is not possible in my mind. I do not see this as option for Ankara,” Selcen said, predicting that Erdogan will likely next turn his military's attention to further deployments in the Syrian Idlib region as part of Turkey’s commitment with Moscow and Tehran to support a de-escalation zone.
U.S. officials expressed concern Monday about Afrin.
“It appears the majority of the population of the city, which is predominantly Kurdish, evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish backed opposition forces. This adds to the already concerning humanitarian situation in the area,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
The success of Turkish led forces in Afrin is threatening to create its own momentum for a further escalation in the military conflict. With Erdogan seeking to ride the surge of nationalism in the country could make it very difficult for the president to now step back.
“Erdogan will have to move on and carry out his promise (of a military operation) towards Manbij and East of Euphrates, because he has brought this up so many times and not to do that would detract from his current victory,” warned Idiz.