World · July 22, 2022

Will Turkey attack the Syrian Kurds without a hint from Russia and Iran?

Turkey has renewed its threats of a new military offensive against the Syrian Kurds, but what can it do after not getting the green light from Russia and Iran?

After announcing his intention to move against Kurdish forces in the Manbij and Tal Rifaat areas of northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined a three-party summit in Tehran this week seeking support.

While Iran and Russia, the other two major foreign players in the Syrian conflict, have held him back, analysts say, Turkey insisted on Thursday that it does not need anyone’s “permission” for a new campaign in Syria.

Here’s a look at what might be next.

Has Erdogan got the green light?

In Tehran, Erdogan has renewed his threats against the Kurdish forces that control areas of north-eastern Syria and which are considered “terrorist” by Ankara.

The summit produced a statement promising to cooperate to “eliminate terrorist individuals and groups” in northern Syria and oppose any separatist ambitions.

The three major foreign brokers, who have long supported opposing sides in the war in Syria, apparently failed to define who qualified as a “terrorist”.

Moscow and Washington have repeatedly warned NATO member Turkey against a new attack on Kurds in northern Syria and in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Erdogan that an offensive would be “harmful”.

“The summit did not give (Erdogan) the green light, but Turkey has repeatedly launched military operations in Syria without the green light,” said Dareen Khalifa, a researcher with the International Crisis Group.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that Turkey “has never asked, and we never ask for permission” for its campaigns in Syria.

“It can happen overnight, suddenly,” he said of a new military push, without specifying the extent of such an operation.

Between 2016 and 2019, Ankara launched three military offensives to eradicate the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which are the main component of the de facto autonomous Kurdish army, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been leading an insurgency in Turkey for decades.

Erdogan has threatened to attack Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria which are part of a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep buffer zone he wants to establish along the border.

Bassam Abu Abdullah of the Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University said he believed a Turkish attack was unlikely.

“I think the fuse of the Turkish military operation … has been completely removed,” he told AFP.

What options does Turkey have?

But even without Moscow and Tehran’s seal of approval, Erdogan could still launch a limited attack.

Turkish media reported that any operation would not take place before the end of August or the beginning of September.

“One option now available to Turkey is to use air force to strike Kurdish targets across Syria. Erdogan has the green light, “said Nicholas Heras of the New Lines Institute.

Kurdish officials said they are preparing for a potential Turkish attack.

“Erdogan is desperate for permission to violate Syrian airspace to conduct his aggression,” said SDF spokesman Farhad Shami.

Turkey, which has been conducting cross-border operations against the PKK in neighboring Iraq for years, killed nine civilians with artillery on Wednesday.

An attack on densely populated Manbij would have “grave humanitarian consequences,” Khalifa warned.

“The renewed conflict will inevitably lead to mass displacement and suffering,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Kurds displaced by the 2018 Turkish offensive in the nearby Afrin region live in the Tal Rifaat area.

Manbij is also an Arab-majority city with displaced Kurds living in and around it.

Is Turkey bringing the Kurds closer to Damascus?

The Syrian army has deployed reinforcements in areas threatened by Turkey, particularly in the vicinity of Manbij, to act as a buffer between Kurdish and Ankara-backed forces.

Abu Abdullah of Damascus University expects even more Syrian army deployments in the area.

Damascus ally Moscow “will push hard in this direction”, he said, adding that Ankara “will not be bothered by this at all, they are pushing for the Syrian army to deploy” at the border to avoid a military escalation.

“Any military operation will complicate the situation for everyone,” he said. “The SDF have no choice but to reach an agreement with the Syrian state”.

Kurdish forces and the Syrian regime have struggled to find an agreement because the Kurds are reluctant to give up territorial conquests as Damascus rejects their self-government.

Khalifa said she is skeptical that the two will see each other face to face.

“A Turkish attack could potentially lead to more defense agreements between the SDF and Damascus, but that may not translate into a broader agreement or solution,” he said.

“At least it wasn’t in the past.”