Turkey is planning military action in northern Syria to prevent the Kurds from forming their own state there, The Daily Beast reports, citing Turkish media.
Although there was no official confirmation, various newspapers said up to 18,000 soldiers would be deployed across the border to control territory thirty kilometers deep into Syria. The occupation zone would stretch from territories held by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in the west to the Kurdish-controlled border town of Kobanî in the east.
Such an operation would likely require significant air and artillery support and mark a dramatic escalation of Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday he could not accept a move toward Kurdish statehood in Syria. “We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria,” he said. “We will continue our fight in that respect whatever the cost may be.”
Kurdish rebels in the north of Syria have made gains against fighters of the self-declared Islamic State and started building state institutions.
Last year, they set up an independent municipal council to run affairs in one of three Kurdish administrative districts.
According to The Daily Beast, Turkish officials worry that the Kurds will turn their attention to the area west of Kobanî and toward Mare’, 25 kilometers north of Aleppo, to link up with Rojava, the de facto independent Kurdish enclave in the far northwest of Syria.
Syria’s Kurds number some two million. Most live in the northeast, close the borders with Iraq and Turkey.
Iraq’s Kurds enjoy a high degree of autonomy themselves and are increasingly likely to split away from Baghdad as the central government is struggling to put down the Islamic State insurgency in that country.
Turkey, critical of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s marginalization of Sunni Muslims — which contributed to Sunni popular support for the Islamic State — has strongly backed Kurdish autonomy there. It infuriated Baghdad by trading oil with the Kurdistan Regional Government. But a military intervention in Syria to put down the state aspirations of Kurds could ruin its accord with the Iraqi Kurds.
Turkey’s NATO allies have long urged it to do more to help end the Syrian conflict while Turkey waited for the West to take the initiative.
The New York Times reported last year that the United States had urged Turkey to take “stronger action against the Islamic State.” One official chastised the Turks for “dragging their feet” and refusing to intervene when Islamic fanatics threaten to overrun Kobanî.
What the Americans overlooked was that Kobanî was being defended by Kurdish fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Turkish militant organizations that is better known by its Kurdish acronym, PKK. This put the Turkish government in an impossible position. Despite its reconciliation efforts with the Kurds in Turkey, it could hardly come to the rescue of what it and its allies consider to be a terrorist organization.
The PKK has used bases in northern Syria to stage attacks against Turkey in the past.
The Turks further insisted that fighting the Islamic State — which now controls swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in northwestern Syria to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq — would be pointless without taking on Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, at the same time.
Erdoğan said it was Assad “who prepared the ground for this.” He not only focused his army on suppressing the relatively moderate rebellion against his minority Alawite regime in the south of the country while leaving radical Islamists to roam free in the north; there is evidence his intelligence and security apparatus actively enabled the Sunni insurgency that spawned into the Islamic State.