"We will carry the long-awaited operation against terrorist elements in northern Syria to the next stage very soon," President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said recently. Ankara is bracing to launch its third cross-border military operation against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terrorist organization. Turkey says both Russia and the United States have been told of the planned operation but did not say when it would begin.
It is well-known that Moscow is Ankara's partner in the Astana peace talks and the de-escalation agreements. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that both parties make sure that they liaise with each other. However, Ankara has publicly articulated its resentment of its alleged NATO ally, Washington. Erdoğan has accused Washington of stalling the process, and his recent proclamation suggests he has lost patience with his American allies.
On more than one occasion, U.S. officials confirmed they've delivered arms to their partner in Syria, the YPG. The American administration reckons that such a move is prone to invoke the wrath of Turkey and jeopardize its relations with a central state in the region.
Why does the U.S. support terror groups and does Turkey still need its approval?
Washington considers the YPG its indispensable ally in combating Daesh. It turned a blind eye to Turkey's concern that the YPG is just another version of the PKK extremist group. After the demise of Daesh, the practices of the YPG proved that Turkey was absolutely right. The group discriminated against the Arab population, who are the majority in the cities the group controlled. It conducted extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention and forcible eviction of towns and villages.
These illicit practices have not been enough for Washington to refrain from its unequivocal support to the group. In the face of it, Washington doesn't want to look as if it is abandoning an ally that helped it defeat Daesh – rather it has gone on to reward them. However, the cruxes of the matter are oil, Iran and military bases.
The Oil and Gas Journal estimated Syria's oil reserves at 2.5 billion barrels as of January 2015. These are located mostly in the east and northeast. Natural gas reserves are estimated at 241 billion cubic meters, located primarily in central Syria.
Trump wants be repaid for his victory over Daesh. Therefore, these resources need to find their way to American reservoirs, not to China or Russia. There are approximately 1,500–2,000 U.S. Marines and special operations forces in Syria, spread across 12 military bases and training posts, most of them in regions controlled by the YPG. By keeping them, Washington makes sure Syria is not entirely left to Russians domination.
America's presence in northern Syria is part of the American administration's messages to Iran. Washington can't entirely rein in Iran's expansionist policy in the Middle East. Iran's presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is undeniable. Iran's policy needs to be deterred depending on its threat to America's best ally in the region, Israel; therefore, Washington won't relinquish its strategic existence in northern Syria.
For Turkey, the approach is completely different. Erdoğan continues to vehemently reiterate that Turkey has the right to eliminate all threats against its national security. On Sunday, he repeated a threat to cross into Syria without the approval of the U.S. if Turkey's conditions for a safe zone are not implemented.
Turkey has exerted every possible diplomatic effort to explain its opposition to the establishment of an autonomous entity in northern Syria under terrorist leadership. Most recently, U.S. military officials visited Ankara for meetings aimed at preventing Turkey from carrying out a new offensive. These high-level meetings are the last ditch American effort to dissuade Turkey from launching a unilateral attack.
Turkey warned of launching this offensive east of the Euphrates months ago but put plans on hold after the U.S. promised to create a buffer zone and instead cleared YPG militants along Syria's border.
Turkey is pushing to establish a safe zone in Syria that would be empty of fighters belonging to the YPG. It has done this in Afrin and it's determined to carry on the operation to Manbij and in the area east of the Euphrates.
The main challenge for Turkey is the presence of American troops in Manbij and other military facilities east of the Euphrates. The operation is imminent, and Turkey is determined. Washington has to decide either to back down and abandon the YPG or stay neutral and let Turkey carry out its mission. Neither decision is stress-free but much better than a military confrontation with Turkey.
* Palestinian-Turkish academic and journalist and a visiting researcher at Leicester University who holds a Ph.D. from Istanbul Technical University in political campaigning.