Turkey appears poised to expand its military operations in Syria, moving east of the Euphrates River, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from two observation posts in the Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain, near the Turkish border.
The Turkish Ministry of Defense announced that preparations for a possible military incursion into Syria were complete, Oct. 7. It remains unclear when the Turkish military will initiate its operation, but the Turkish government has been threatening a major military offensive into northeast Syria for several weeks.
Turkey’s primary goals are to resettle over three million Syrian refugees who currently live in Turkey and to rein in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, and several other Syrian minority religious and ethnic groups who allied to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Ankara has long been concerned about the SDF's ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK has been leading an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades and is considered a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the US. Ankara essentially sees the SDF as a corollary of the PKK that may eventually conduct attacks across the border into Turkey.
However, the US has provided substantial support to the SDF and US military personnel are embedded with the group and assisting it in its fight against IS. The physical presence of these US forces has dissuaded Turkey from carrying out actions against the SDF.
While the SDF has not stated how it will respond to the Turkish offensive, the group has called on the residents of northeastern Syria to stand with it against the "Turkish aggression."
The fallout from the US withdrawal and any eventual Turkish military operations east of the Euphrates will likely manifest as civil unrest. Political, student, and civil society groups who oppose the adminstration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will probably stage anti-war protests in various cities throughout Turkey – mainly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, but also in major western metropolitan areas, including Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. The impact from such actions would primarily be from associated travel and transport disruptions, but clashes are also possible. Turkish police are quick to use force - mainly tear gas and water cannon - to disperse even small demonstrations by anti-government activists.
Turkish operations against the SDF could motivate Kurdish militant groups within Turkey - mainly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) - to attempt retaliatory attacks, including against US interests in the country. However, the PKK and TAK’s ability to engage in such activities in Turkey is significantly limited at this time due to large-scale security operations presently ongoing in Turkey’s Kurdish southeastern provinces, as well as the generally heightened presence of Turkish military units supporting operations in Syria. That said, to the extent a threat does exist, the Turkish provinces with the highest potential for PKK/TAK activity are Hakkari, Siirt, Diyarbakır, Bingöl, Tunceli, Şırnak, Şanlıurfa.
Since Trump’s announcement of the troop withdrawal, the US President has indicated he may alter the speed or thoroughness with which US troops leave northeastern Syria. Many members of the US Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, have expressed concerns about Turkey’s intentions, the safety of US-allied SDF fighters, and the long-term prospects of anti-terrorism campaigns in the area. A complete reversal of the withdrawl is possible, but would lead to greatly hieghtened tensions between the US and Turkey. It is unclear if Turkey would suspend or move forward with its planned operations in northeast Syria if US troops remained in the region.
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