"We will start the operation to clear the east of the Euphrates from separatist terrorists in a few days. Our target is never US soldiers," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised speech Wednesday. "This step will allow for the path to a political solution to be opened and for healthier cooperation."
US forces are in the region in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance in the civil war dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG. Ethnic Kurds straddle numerous borders in the mountainous region, living in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, closely guarding their independence and seeking greater autonomy from their respective central governments. Kurdish groups in Turkey are considered terrorist organizations and outlawed, and Ankara has repeatedly waged war against their militias in an effort to stamp out any movement for autonomy or independence.
In 2016, Turkey and the Free Syrian Army, another loosely-aligned faction of the civil war dominated by Islamist parties including Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, launched an offensive called "Operation Euphrates Shield" against Kurdish militias in Idlib and Aleppo provinces — militias supported by the United States. That operation was followed up by Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, a concentrated assault on the majority-Kurdish city of Afrin, in Idlib Governorate, leading to the continued occupation of the region by Turkish military forces, FSA militias and US and US-aligned Kurdish SDF militias.
It's an explosive situation that was only contained in September by a carefully negotiated ceasefire orchestrated by Iran, Russia, and Turkey, Sputnik reported.
In his Wednesday speech, Erdogan claimed that Turkey was not being protected from terrorists but that "terrorists were being protected" from Turkey, noting that an operation against them could begin in the coming days.
Meanwhile, a US aircraft carrier has entered the region: the USS John C. Stennis, a 100,000-ton supercarrier with a fighter wing of nearly 80 jets, arrived in the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, ending an eight-month period in which none of the US Navy's dozen aircraft carriers was deployed to the region, Sputnik reported.
"It's been in the offing ever since [US Secretary of Defense James] Mattis announced a few weeks ago that the US was going ahead with setting up observation posts over Turkish objections," Peter Ford, former UK Ambassador to Syria, told Radio Sputnik's Loud and Clear Wednesday. "This is asking for trouble, and Erdogan is now giving it."
However, Ford discounted the possibility of a military clash between the Americans and the Turks. "I'm sure the Turks will be very careful not to cause any skirmishes with US forces, and the same is true the other way around. So I don't seriously expect there to be direct conflict. But it's bad enough that the Turks are very likely just to walk in, defy the US and simply swamp the small US observation forces on the ground. At the very least, it's going to be humiliating to the United States."
Ford noted the US has 12 bases and two airfields in northeastern Syria. "All illegal," he said, noting that "Turkey's presence, also, in Syria, is illegal. Nobody has consulted the legitimate Syrian government in any of this, but it is a fact that the US has put down a couple of Bagram-style bases in this area," a large airbase in Afghanistan with 10,000-foot runways capable of servicing the largest US jets, "all primarily with the ostensible, superficial excuse of fighting ISIS [Daesh]. But the real purpose is to deny territory to Assad, who is the legitimate government."
"This is what it's all about. We have to ask, ‘Why is the US risking confrontation with Turkey? What major US interest is at stake here? We're going, almost to war, with an important NATO ally; there must be some very important US interest.' But upon examination, we find that there is no US interest here: there is just a selfish desire to deny territory to Assad, who represents no strategic threat to the United States whatever."
However, Ford noted that one argument made by the US for its presence in Syria is that, "by camping on Syrian territory, the US is putting pressure on Iran to remove itself" from Syria. Iran, one of the guarantors of a September ceasefire in the country, along with Turkey and Russia, has seen its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) serving as military advisers to the Syrian Arab Army since at least 2014. However, recent footage released by the group shows IRGC drones striking Daesh targets in Syria over the course of several years of war, Sputnik reported. Tehran maintains it has no standing military forces in the country, despite extensive pleading otherwise by Israeli and US leaders.
"This logic, if you can call it that, is stupid," Ford told hosts John Kiriakou and Brian Becker, "because there is no way the Iranians are going to leave Assad in the lurch while there is a single set of US military boots on the ground. It would make more sense to remove the US troops, and then Iran would have far less pretext to hang around in Syria. But this is what passes for thinking with the geniuses that make up US policy."
Ford said it wasn't "too much of a stretch" to believe that Erdogan's threats were part of a political ploy to gain political traction in local elections coming up in March. "However, he's incurring an economic cost," Ford said, noting that "the economy is tanking, and the risk of clashes with the US has caused massive falls on the Turkish stock exchange, so it's not without risk for him. But I think he's doing it because he really believes it. This has been one constant with Erdogan: the priority is given to keeping an autonomous Kurdish entity far away from the Turkish border and preventing the emergence of such an entity to the fullest extent possible."