The Turkish military is gearing up for an all-out offensive on areas currently held by the PKK Syrian affiliate Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in northern Syria, military sources told Daily Sabah.
The Turkish military is expected to launch an operation near the Turkish border town of Kilis to take the PYD-held Afrin, Tell Rifaat and Minnigh Military Airport in a move that Ankara has insinuated for a while.
Military sources said that the military, which has been building up a presence at the Syrian border for a long time, "is likely to kick off the operation to sweep PYD and YPG terrorists from Afrin this weekend."
Ankara has long warned the PYD against remaining along the Turkish-Syrian border, saying that it would not allow the formation of a "terrorist state" along its borders in northern Syria. Speaking just across the border last Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated Turkey's case against the PYD clearer than ever, saying: "Despite who is by your side [referring to the U.S. coalition], you shall know that Turkey, with its armed forces, will not let a state be formed in northern Syria."
The Afrin offensive is expected to be similar to Operation Euphrates Shield, which was launched on August 24, 2016, and concluded late in March. The operation successfully liberated Jarablus, Dabiq and al-Bab from Daesh.
A journalist for the Sabah newspaper who is currently in Idlib, Syria, told Daily Sabah that the new operation will start very soon. "Tensions have been escalating recently. We obtained information that high-ranking commanders will cross into Syria, which will trigger the offensive," Sabah reporter Uğur Yıldırım said. Local journalists on the ground also said that a Turkish operation in Afrin and Tell Rifaat was imminent. Journalists pointed to the next couple of days for the start of the offensive.
"We were able to predict that a follow-up operation would be carried out in the wake of Operation Euphrates Shield. Ankara has already set up dozens of military bases in Syria to ensure security, including bases in al-Bab and Azaz," Yıldırım added.
While speculations swirl regarding how Turkey will carry out the offensive, there are other actors on the ground in Syria. The U.S. has been standing out as the biggest supporter of the YPG in the country. Washington has been arming the terrorist group and providing heavy machinery, ammunition and other military needs in an attempt to allegedly fight Daesh. The group has been fighting in an offensive to retake Raqqa from Daesh for a while.
Ankara is not alone in its criticism of Washington's support for the YPG. Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, was quoted by Anadolu Agency (AA) during a recent Washington-based Turkish Heritage Organization (THO) panel as saying that he has similar concerns as Turkey regarding the YPG: "The Turkish government has repeatedly stressed that it would not let a PKK state be formed along its border but we are getting closer to that point as we continue to arm and train the YPG."
Even though the PYD and its YPG are U.S. allies, its operations in Afrin are more closely tied to Russia. The PYD and YPG raised a Russian flag in Afrin in mid-May. Prior to raising the flag, some Russian soldiers were photographed with YPG militants in the town.
How the Kremlin will react to Ankara's operation on Afrin or whether the U.S. will make moves to hinder the offensive remain unclear. However, Russian news agency Sputnik reported yesterday that Vladimir Avatkov of the Russian Foreign Minister Diplomacy Academy said: "The Kremlin does not rule out the possibility of a Turkish cross-border operation in Syria."
Murat Yeşiltaş, director of Security Studies at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), said the U.S. is rather ineffective west of the Euphrates compared to the east of the river. Stressing that there are two main actors in the area in Turkey and Russia, Yeşiltaş said the Kremlin does not see eye-to-eye with Ankara on the YPG issue.
"Turkey and Russia have been on the same terms regarding issues such as a cease-fire in Syria and the establishment of de-escalation zones. It seems like Russia will not make a fuss about Turkey's operation in Afrin if the operation does not threaten its own military bases," Yeşiltaş said.
He contended that Russia's willingness to see the benefit in the bigger picture is relevant: "The Kremlin would rather stay inactive to a Turkish offensive so as not lose its side of the deal for Idlib," he said.
Turkey, Iran and Russia previously agreed to establish de-escalation zones in Syria's Idlib, parts of Aleppo, Latakia and Homs, Damascus/Eastern Ghouta and parts of Daraa and Quneitra.
It has been already reported that Turkey and Russia may jointly deploy troops to Idlib. Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın said on June 22 that as part of the agreement, Turkey and Russia could jointly deploy forces to Syria's northwestern Idlib area, which is currently controlled by opposition groups.