Turkey is on the brink of carrying out a brand new offensive into northern Syria, this time to the eastern parts of the Euphrates River. This means that the country will be sending its troops to the region for the third time since 2016. Turkey has a handful of reasons that have made these operations necessary, most particularly the national security threats to its borders, the 3 million Syrian refugees that are waiting to return to their homes and the desire for the long-awaited political transition of Syria to return to normal. On Dec. 12, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey will carry out a military operation against terrorist organizations in Syria east of the Euphrates River "in a few days." Shortly thereafter, it was decided that the operation be delayed following the U.S.' announcement of withdrawing from the country. Still, the president underlined more than once that the offensive into northern Syria is not that far away, emphasizing its significance for the country's security.
Terrorists in N. Syria pose a threat to Turkey's security
Northern Syria is a region that has long been the center of vital security concerns for Turkey, caused mainly from the existence of terrorist elements in the area, especially Daesh and the PKK's Syrian affiliate the People's Protection Units (YPG). Daesh emerged in 2014 as an extremist group that rose to power through a campaign of violence, invasion and extreme brutality against residents. Although its base was mostly in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group has committed various terrorist attacks in many different countries, causing the death of hundreds of people. Turkey is one of the countries that suffered the most from Daesh terrorism both within and outside its borders. Daesh was the group that was behind some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country's history, such as the Reina nightclub attack that took place two years ago today, during New Year celebrations on the shore of the Bosporus, killing 39 people.
However, aside from all these sufferings, Turkey also posed as an example for other countries in the fight against Daesh, since it contributed to the decline of the group that started after an expansionist period of 2014-15, in a remarkable level through its both domestic and cross-border operations. Some 2,000 people were arrested, and 7,000 others were deported in operations against Daesh in Turkey, while around 70,000 people were denied entry to Turkey over their suspected links to the terrorist group.
Security forces have also foiled at least 10 attack plots. Figures show that some 18,500 suspects are currently being monitored for links to the terrorist group after being identified at airports upon arrival. Besides this, during Turkey's first operation in northern Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, which was launched in 2016, many Daesh controlled towns have been retaken from the terrorist group by the Turkish military. However, Daesh still maintains control of five towns in the countryside of eastern Deir el-Zour province and Homs in central Syria.
The YPG, on the other hand, gained its strength through its links to the PKK, a terrorist group that has been raging a bloody war against Turkey for more than 40 years, as well as the support that it receives from the United States, which is provided under the pretext of the fight against Daesh. Despite Turkey's repeatedly expressed concerns over the issue, the U.S., a NATO ally of the country, did not put an end to its support to the terrorist organization, claiming that it has no connection with the PKK, overlooking all the evidence that proves otherwise.
Taking into consideration that Daesh has receded as an immediate threat, the U.S.' insistence on supporting the YPG has raised even more questions in Turkey. Still, thanks to this support, the YPG is provided with weapons and training, enabling them to control a large area in northern Syria, right across the Turkish border. Now that the U.S. has announced its withdrawal from the region, the destiny of the weapons that were given to the terrorist organization still remains unknown, causing Turkey's concerns to escalate even more.
Both of these terrorist organizations were once dominating almost the entire southern border region of Turkey, posing threats against the country's national security. Yet, in order to prevent any more bloodshed within its border, Turkey vowed not to let any terror corridor take place in the region and thus has been launching the offensives.
In a bid to face threats emanating from the presence of the YPG in Syria, Turkey has also sought to fully implement the Manbij road map, which was first announced in early June and aims to establish security and stability in the city by clearing out YPG forces. The deal envisages the withdrawal of the YPG from the city and joint patrols to be conducted by the militaries of both countries. YPG forces first acquired the city in 2016 with the help of U.S-led coalition forces. Turkish and U.S. troops began joint patrols in Manbij on Nov. 1 as part the Manbij agreement. However, because of the U.S.' constant delaying, the process has become sluggish and is moving slower than initially scheduled.
Syrian refugees wish to return to their homes
Another reason behind the offensives is the Syrian refugees that live in Turkey and desire to go back to their homes as soon as possible. The conflict in Syria that started in 2011 has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 5 million people to flee, while more than 7 million are internally displaced. Some have sought to reach Europe via the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but hundreds have died en route to Greece and other littoral countries.
Since 2011, Turkey has received a constant flow of displaced Syrians fleeing the conflict and their numbers have expanded from mere thousands to millions. Currently, there are more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which is the highest number in the world. Although the country has many policies to integrate these refugees into the society and provide them with good standards, many are still longing for their hometowns, wishing for things to go back to normal as soon as possible for their country.
Previously, Turkey conducted two offensives in northern Syria, Operation Olive Branch and Operation Euphrates Shield. The first was launched by Ankara to clear its borders of Daesh terrorists, while the second was to prevent the YPG's ultimate plan of establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria by connecting the northwestern Afrin canton to the Kobani and Jazeera cantons in the northeast.
Following the operations, Turkey has also been involved in efforts to rebuild the towns' infrastructures, as well as health and educational institutions. Schools are being renovated and a hospital is being built. Turkey also helps local people build olive oil facilities in the town where agriculture is the main source of income for residents. Thanks to the success of both operations and the post-operation developments in the liberated areas, the numbers of refugees returning to their hometowns have increased in recent months. More than 281,000 Syrian refugees have returned home since 2016.
Now, the third operation is expected to target the east of Euphrates, where the YPG enjoys its domination. However, the terrorist organization's unlawful activities and human right violations in the region have actually caused thousands to flee from the area and take refuge in Turkey. The YPG's forced migration policy and aims of changing demographics in regions under its control have previously also been documented by international rights groups, where it forces local Arab and Turkmen populations and even Kurds critical of YPG policies, out of their homes. The terrorist organization has a lengthy record of human rights abuses ranging from displacing people, deliberate disruptions of education and health services, recruiting child soldiers, torture, ethnic cleansing, destroying and confiscating locals' homes and public buildings.
The pressure reached such a level that last week, representatives from Assyrian, Turkmen and Kurdish tribes came together in Syria's Azaz region in a bid to unite against the terror groups in the region calling for establishing peace following the U.S.'s decision to pull out its troops from Syria.
Due to these brutalities of the YPG, Turkey has opened its doors to 512,708 Syrian refugees fleeing from the YPG-held areas while another 300,000 Syrian refugees coming from the region took shelter in Iraq.
According to a detailed October report of the Interior Ministry's migration management department, almost 20 percent of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees that Turkey hosts came from YPG-held territories including 20,832 from Hasakah, 141,903 from Raqqa, 34,852 from Manbij and 128,121 from Ayn al-Arab. Thus, following the third operation east of the Euphrates, the return of thousands of Syrians to their homelands, which will be liberated by the YPG by then, is expected.
Democratic transition key for Syria's future
Turkey also wishes that Syrians have a peaceful and secured country when they return back. Thus, apart from its own efforts to bring life back to normal in post-operation areas, the country also aims to have a democratic transition in Syria to have a proper government and preserve the unity of the state.
In order for this, having a new constitution and therefore the establishment of the constitutional committee has been considered as significant for the process ahead in Syria as it is expected to pave the way for holding free elections and ending the seven-year conflict.
Thus, during the Syrian peace conference in late January in Sochi, the formation of a committee to develop recommendations to amend the Syrian constitution was agreed upon. In the 150-member constitutional committee, three groups; the opposition, the Syrian regime and representatives of civil society are decided to be represented. For each group, a list of 50 people was expected to be prepared. Finally, from each group 15 names will be picked and this group of 45 people was expected to draft the constitution. With the purpose of having a proper constitutional committee, the 50-member list of civil society representatives were submitted by Turkey, Russia and Iran at a meeting in Geneva on Dec. 18.
The establishment of the constitutional committee is not the only effort that Turkey shows in order to reach a peaceful Syria. Previously, Turkey, Iran and Russia launched a peace process in the Kazakh capital Astana. Last year, the three guarantor countries agreed to establish de-escalation zones in the northern province of Idlib and parts of neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.
Under the Astana agreement, Turkey established 12 observation points from Idlib's north to south aiming to monitor and sustain the current cease-fire agreement for the de-escalation zones; it delivers humanitarian aid and ensures the secure return of displaced people. The guarantors have said that the Astana process is not an alternative but a complementary initiative to the U.N.-brokered Geneva talks.
The Sochi agreement, on the other hand, was reached on Sept. 17 between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The deal established a cease-fire in the Idlib region, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, on the condition that heavy arms and extremist groups would withdraw from the region. Prior to the agreement, the Bashar Assad regime was signaling an expansive military operation against Idlib, sparking fears in the international community of a new humanitarian crisis.