Turkey Prepares New Ground Offensive in Northern Syria

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Servicemen of the Turkish Special Forces Command at the 2020 Victory Parade in Baku. Courtesy of the President of Azerbaijan (Wikimedia CC0)

Turkish ground forces are ready and waiting for the go ahead to cross over their southern border and attack Kurdish militant strongholds in Syria. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has yet to give the order as of today, but appeared to announce a forthcoming ground offensive against Kurdish militia groups in northern Syria on Nov. 22.

In his speech, Erdoğan said, “We have been bearing down on terrorists for a few days with our planes, cannons and guns. God willing, we will root out all of them as soon as possible, together with our tanks, our soldiers.”

Turkey’s Security Concerns

The alleged terrorists Erdoğan referred to are the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of the Kurdish militia group, The People’s Defense Units (YPG), and Syrian fighters, that have received support from the U.S. for fighting with the Islamic State group.

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A memorial held for Nov. 13 bombing victims on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. Courtesy of Kurmanbek (Wikimedia CC0)

The speech by Erdoğan followed a weekend filled with Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire that bombarded the northern Syrian towns Kobani and Tal Rifaat, as well as nearby Kurdish bases. Turkey says their strikes destroyed 89 targets in Syria and Iraq and killed 184 Kurdish militants.

The YPG retaliated with mortar shelling and rocket fire, injuring six, and killing a teacher and student in the Turkish province of Gaziantep.

Turkish authorities believe the Nov. 13 terrorist bombing that killed six people and injured 81 in the heart of Istanbul was linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an affiliate of YPG. Both the YPG and PKK have denied involvement in the attack.

Washington and Moscow Encourage De-Escalation

Turkey is a member state of NATO, but out of all NATO members has a working relationship with the Russian government. Ankara has been involved in mediating between Kyiv and Moscow in the Ukrainian conflict. They have also been one of the only NATO members to resist Russian neighbors, Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO.

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Courtesy of AteshCommons (Wikimedia CC0)

Moscow, a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, says that they understand Turkey’s concerns but also believe that Turkey should avoid actions that will further destabilize the situation on the ground, according to Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.

 

Turkey and the U.S. are also in disagreement over a ground invasion, as the U.S. has been supporting the SDF, and by extension, the YPG militarily. Both Turkey and the U.S. designate the PKK as a terrorist organization, but Turkey views YPG and PKK as one in the same. The U.S. fears that Turkey’s operation would interfere with their objectives in quashing Islamic State influence in the region.

“We tell all our partners, notably the United States, at every level, that the YPG equals the PKK and persist with our demand that they halt every kind of support for terrorists,” said Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

State of the Syrian Civil War: How It Started

The ongoing conflict in Syria was originally birthed out of the Arab Spring movement that began in 2011. Syria saw its first demonstrations on the March 15 2011, in the capital city of Damascus. The Assad Family has had control of the country in an authoritarian dictatorship since 1971. This, paired with the fact that the Assad’s belong to the Alawite Shia sect of Islam, in contrast to Syria’s majority Sunni population, made Syria a prime candidate for the civil disorder of the Arab Spring to take root.

Protests in 20 cities throughout the country called for Assad to step down and democratic reforms to be made. But Assad would refuse to be overthrown so easily, and during demonstrations he ordered the military to open fire on protesters, killing and arresting over a thousand civilians by the end of May.

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Sappers of the International Mine Action Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense ride through rubble in the streets of Aleppo, Syria. Courtesy of Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (Wikimedia CC0)

In response to the violent backlash from the government, a group of officers from the military defected and formed the Free Syrian Army. Several other opposition groups with various intentions and philosophies formed including the SDF, PKK and the Islamic State group also known as ISIS or ISIL. The Red Cross officially declared the conflict a civil war in July of 2012.

Foreign Involvement

Foreign powers were involved in the conflict almost immediately. The United States initially armed and funded the FSA and the SDF to fight the Syrian government as well as the now infamous Islamic State group, who had been taking territory in Iraq and Syria and sponsoring terror attacks around the world. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey also supported the anti-Assad/anti IS coalition. Russia on the other hand along with Hezbollah, Iraq, and Iran supported Assad’s forces. Syria had become a focus of foreign influences and global power struggles.

Most sides seemed content to oppose the Islamic State. The group had originated as an Al-Qaeda affiliate but became one of the opposition groups at the start of the Syrian conflict. IS took large portions of Western Syria and Eastern Iraq by force and in June of 2014 declared itself a caliphate, which in theory would give it political and religious sovereignty over all Muslims. It, however, was never recognized as a state by any country or muslim denomination. The U.S. made it a point of focus to defeat IS, especially after it became clear that they had influenced terrorist attacks in several European countries.

What Does the Situation Look Like Today?

With the U.S. focusing on containing and dismantling the Islamic State group, and Russia giving full support to the Syrian government, Assad has been able to gain a comfortable hold of the mid to southern regions of the country, including the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

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Turkish reinforcements during Afrin Campaign. Courtesy of Mark Lowen (Wikimedia CC0)

As of March 2022, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that 610,000 people have died as a result of the Syrian Civil War, with over 160,000 of those being civilian deaths. In addition, 2.1 million civilians have sustained injuries. Thirteen million have been displaced.

The now 11 year war has grabbed less and less attention from the global news media, and yet continues with no clear end in sight. Assad, with Russian support, is not likely to fall anytime soon, and with Turkey now preparing to back up their air attacks on Kurdish militants with boots on the ground, it appears the death toll of this war will only continue to rise.

 

Written by Seth Herlinger

Sources:

Aljazeera: Erdogan threatens Syria ground operation ‘as soon as possible’

Aljazeera: Syria’s war explained from the beginning

Aljazeera: What is the future of the Syrian Democratic Forces?

AP News: Turkey hints new Syria offensive; Russia urges restraint

The New York Times: Syrian Protesters Clash With Security Forces

Reuters: Erdogan says Turkey to attack Kurdish militants with tanks, soldiers

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: Syrian Revolution 11 years on | SOHR documents by names nearly 161,000 civilian deaths, including 40,500 children and women

 

Top and featured image by the President of Azerbaijan, courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License

First inset image by Kurmanbek, courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License

Second inset image by AteshCommons, courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License

Third inset image by Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License

Final inset image by Mark Lowen, courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License

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