Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli affirmed that the Turkish military would cross into Syrian territory and attack U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in that country on Friday, a move that may trigger direct clashes between Turkey and the Bashar al-Assad regime.
While Turkish officials insist that any military action in Syria would only target the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), the Assad regime warned on Thursday that it would shoot Turkish warplanes out of the sky if they violated Syria’s sovereignty.
Turkey considers the YPG and its all-female units, the YPJ, terrorist elements allied with the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The United States has relied heavily on the YPG to diminish what was once an overwhelming Islamic State presence in the region and considers it a separate entity from the designated terrorist group PKK.
The YPG and the official Syrian Army have largely avoided each other in the sprawling Syrian Civil War. The YPG has focused on attacking ISIS, while the Syrian Army has targeted Sunni Arab civilians.
“The threat level against Turkey is increasing day by day. This operation will be carried out and we will combat terrorism,” Canikli warned on Turkish television Friday, according to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “The threat level against Turkey is increasing day by day. This operation will be carried out and we will combat terrorism.”
The operation on Syrian land “already started de facto,” Canikli admitted.
Anadolu Agency published video on Friday of Turkish soldiers shooting at YPG targets.
The Prime Minister of Turkey also weighed in on the potential military action on Friday. “Any formation that threatens the national security of Turkey will never be tolerated. This is our natural right. It is a right as part of international law and Turkish law as well,” Binali Yildirim said, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
According to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, a UK-based NGO, the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF)—a pro-U.S. force largely made up of YPG fighters—has begun advancing on the few remaining Islamic State (ISIS) strongholds in the region.
A Turkish operation could culminate the ultimate defeat of ISIS in Syria.
The U.S. State Department warned as much on Thursday in a regular department briefing. “We would call on … the Turks to not take any actions of that sort,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters. “We want everyone there to keep their eye … on the ball. And the focus needs to be on ISIS. So we don’t want them to engage in violence, but we want them to keep focused on ISIS.”
A U.S. government announcement last week triggered the organization of potential major military action by Turkey in Syria. The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State announced that it would create a “new Syrian Border Security Force (BSF),” largely made up of YPG fighters, to prevent would-be ISIS jihadists from crossing into the Syrian battlefields through Turkey and preventing those in the country from escaping and possibly entering Western countries with battle experience.
“Currently, there are approximately 230 individuals training in the BSF’s inaugural class, with the goal of a final force size of approximately 30,000,” coalition spokesman Colonel Thomas F. Veale told reporters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately called the BSF a “horde of murderers” and vowed to “choke” every member of it.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a clarification on America’s plans in the region on Wednesday.
“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” he asserted.
Shooting across the border had apparently begun by the time Tillerson spoke, however, and the Turkish government appears reluctant to believe it. The clashes have triggered a response from both Assad and his patron state, Russia.
The Syrian government has made clear it is “ready to destroy the Turkish air targets in the skies of the Syrian Arab Republic” if planes cross the border. The Russian government, meanwhile, has begun withdrawing troops from northern Syria.