By Daren Butler, Jonathan Spicer and Maya Gebeily
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to launch military operations soon to expand security zones already in place across Turkey’s southern borders has upped the ante in his row with NATO partners on Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.
Analysts said Erdogan’s surprise announcement on Monday reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations at a time when it needs Ankara’s backing for the Nordic countries’ bid for membership. NATO membership.
Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harboring people linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a banned activist. All 30 NATO countries must accept the Nordic states’ application for membership. The United States said on Tuesday it was confident Sweden and Finland could overcome Turkey’s concerns.
Analysts said Erdogan’s announcement was also aimed at bolstering Turkish nationalist support for his two-decade rule as he prepares for a tough election next year. Cross-border military operations have boosted its ratings in the past.
Turkey has carried out three incursions into northern Syria since 2016, seizing hundreds of kilometers of land and pushing some 30 km (20 miles) deep into the country, in operations mainly targeting Syrian militia US-backed Kurdish YPG.
It has also intensified its military operations against PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent years.
Turkey considers the two groups as a single terrorist entity. Its NATO allies only consider the PKK a terrorist group, not the YPG.
Asli Aydintasbas, an Istanbul-based senior policy researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan’s move was meant to test Turkey’s NATO allies.
“President Erdogan’s style for tackling international challenges ups the ante – and it almost always works to win over NATO allies,” she said.
“It’s worked in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria in the past – why not try again.”
Erdogan said operations to counter threats from across the border would begin once Turkey’s armed forces and intelligence services complete their preparations, with decisions to be made at a council meeting National Security Thursday.
The YPG, or People’s Defense Units, is a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led coalition that the United States has relied heavily on to fight Islamic State militants since 2014.
Commenting on Erdogan’s announcement, the SDF accused Turkey of trying to “destabilize the region” by threatening military action in northern Syria.
The SDF also said it shot down a Turkish drone on Sunday that Ankara used to monitor SDF-held areas ahead of planned bombings.
“If attacked, of course, we will resist and retaliate. The international community now faces an important test: will it be able to effectively subdue Turkey?” said Ciwan Mulla Ibrahim, spokesman for the SDF-controlled self-government in northeast Syria.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There was also no immediate comment from Washington.
Erdogan said the planned military operation would reveal which countries respected Turkey’s security concerns and which did not – an issue that goes to the heart of the current NATO row.
Dareen Khalifa, Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Turkish military action against the YPG was still possible despite the relative calm along Turkey’s border with YPG-held areas in northern Syria. Syria since 2019.
While mediators, including the United States, have managed to ease tensions in recent years, “the crux of the matter – relations between Turkey and the PKK – has not been addressed”, she said. .
THE ELECTIONS ARE REQUIRED
Erdogan hopes to leverage the issue of Swedish and Finnish NATO membership to achieve his long-standing goal of creating a buffer zone free of Kurdish fighters along the entire Turkey-Syria border, officials said. analysts.
His decision comes as opinion polls show support for Erdogan and his ruling AK party is waning amid growing economic difficulties. Turkey is holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.
Aydintasbas said Turkey had already organized cross-border operations before the elections. But staging a large-scale military incursion also carries risks.
In addition to the YPG presence, Russia has deployed forces to the region in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
US troops, Turkish-backed insurgents, Iranian-backed fighters, jihadists and Syrian government forces also operate in Syria’s patchwork of northern territories.
(Reporting by Daran Butler and Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul, and Maya Gebeily in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)