The ardently pro-Turkish government newspaper Yeni Safak reported Monday that Ankara has prepared 80,000 troops to invade the Kurdish region of northern Syria in anticipation of the United States’ withdrawal from the area.
The operation in question would result in Turkish control over Manbij, a city in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) currently held by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), a U.S.-allied militia. While the YPG played a central role in the eradication of the Islamic State from much of Syria, including the terrorist group’s “capital” Raqqa, the Turkish government considers the YPG indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The U.S. cooperates with the YPG but considers the PKK, a Marxist group using force to establish an independent Kurdish state, a terrorist organization.
According to Yeni Safak, which regularly publishes articles in line with the politics of Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “close to 80,000 soldiers of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) are ready to take part in the biggest cross-border operation in the country’s modern history in Syria’s Manbij and east of the Euphrates regions since the successful Turkish deployment in Cyprus back in 1974.”
The troops will assert themselves in an attempt to take control of “an area of 30,000 square kilometers” in Syria from “terrorist organizations,” which Yeni Safak does not name.
Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s main newspapers, reported on Monday corroborating evidence of such a military preparation. According to that publication, the Turkish military recently moved an unspecified number of tanks and armored vehicles to its border with Syria in anticipation of a major military operation there.
Turkey has repeatedly threatened an invasion of Rojava to eradicate the YPG in the aftermath of U.S. President Donald Trump announcing that the United States would pull its troops out of Syria last month. U.S. officials stated last week that the withdrawal had indeed began but only of equipment, not troops. Adding to the confusion were remarks from National Security Advisor John Bolton who said prior to a visit to Turkey that the United States would not leave northern Syria without concrete security guarantees for the Kurds. Erdogan refused to meet with Bolton while in Ankara.
On Sunday, Trump echoed Bolton’s statements on Twitter, threatening to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.” Turkish officials responded by condemning Trump for not specifying which Kurdish faction he meant.
“It is a fatal mistake to equate Syrian Kurds with the PKK, which is on the U.S. terrorist list, and its Syria branch PYD/YPG,” Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said. “Turkey fights against terrorists, not Kurds.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu further accused the United States of “threats” against a fellow NATO member.
“We have repeatedly said that we are never afraid of threats. Threatening Turkey economically will get you nowhere,” he said on Monday, adding that Trump should not use social media to communicate with the Turkish government.
President Trump spoke to Erdogan personally following the tweets on Monday. According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, “the two leaders discussed several bilateral issues, including ongoing cooperation in Syria as U.S. forces begin to withdraw, and other topics for future cooperation.”
“The President expressed the desire to work together to address Turkey’s security concerns in northeast Syria while stressing the importance to the United States that Turkey does not mistreat the Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces with whom we have fought to defeat ISIS,” Sanders said.
A Turkish assault on Manbij would expand Ankara’s control of northern Syria beyond Afrin, a town near Manbij that American and Kurdish troops withdrew from. The YPG has accused Turkish allies of human rights violations against the local Kurdish population in the area. A YPG spokesman warned on Saturday that Turkish-allied militias were deliberately preventing human rights observers from entering the area to “document the crimes and daily atrocities” against Kurds in the area.
The spokesman, Nuri Mahmud, accused the Turkish of “a planned ethnic cleansing campaign against our people.”
The Turkish government is allied with the mainly Sunni Arab Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group originally fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Like Erdogan – who once claimed Turkey had entered Syria exclusively “to end the rule of the tyrant Assad” – the FSA have shifted much of their focus away from Assad troops and towards the Kurds.