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“We say this about the east of Euphrates; either we will clear the region of the terrorists together, [or] Turkey will enter there and clear by ourselves” – the strident words of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. Those with a vested interest in Syria would be wise to heed his uncompromising tone. Twice already President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened military advancement into Syria, and twice he’s followed through. Now, the Turkish strongman is poised to push further into Kurdish-held land than ever before. 

For weeks troops have been amassing on the Syrian border. Ankara’s intentions are thinly veiled – the northeast of their troubled neighbour is controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group they align with PKK terrorists. Driving back these Kurdish militants – who operate under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) banner – and opening a buffer zone along Turkey’s border is imperative to national security, Erdogan warns.

If he’s true to form, the president’s threat is unlikely to be empty. After months of posturing, the Kurdish-held border town of Jarabulus was clinically annexed in 2016’s ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’. Then, in early 2018, Turkey invaded the SDF district of Afrin. Amid a brutal three-month campaign, reports of forced displacement and human rights abuses were rife. Licking their wounds, defeated YPG forces retreated back towards the Euphrates river. Now, once again, they’re in Erdogan’s crosshairs. 

But Turkey’s next move promises to be trickier than the last. Unlike its land straddling the border, SDF-held territory east of the Euphrates hosts U.S. troops. There, two thousand Americans continue their operation against the disbanded but still deadly Islamic State (IS), alongside the YPG. Washington officials have long supported and supplied the group, and – unlike their NATO allies in Ankara – don’t consider them terrorists. Instead, in American minds, the YPG are conquerors of terror, having played an instrumental role in IS’s destruction. Any unilateral Turkish incursion into their land would be simply “unacceptable,” said US Defense Secretary Mark Esper. 

Herein lies the issue. Driven by national security concerns, Erdogan feels he must pacify northeastern Syria – but in doing so, he risks confrontation with the US, a stalwart Turkish ally. If his troops were to engage YPG targets, might American troops be caught in the crossfire? The consequences of a US-Turkish clash would be huge – a point not lost on Erdogan. Rather than risk confrontation, he’s likely to thread the middle ground – taking on the Kurds while circumventing the Americans.

“Should Turkey intervene, it will do so in such a way as to avoid threatening American troops, which currently lack the congressional authority to defend their allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Consequently, a Turkish intervention poses an existential threat to America’s mission in Syria”. 

Little wonder the US has been pushing for a compromise. They’ve agreed to Turkish demands for a demilitarised buffer zone, but believe it should be limited to 10km – a far cry from the 40km proposed by Erdogan. His demand for such a huge swath of land points to another of Ankara’s objectives: refugee repatriation. Keen to snub his Damascus adversary, Turkey’s president opened the door to Syrian citizens fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s butchery. But public sentiment has turned against the 3.6 million asylum seekers, and Erdogan is under pressure to send them home.

An expansive buffer zone is the perfect site for relocation, he reckons. The lands of Afrin have already been filled with Syrian settlers, occupying the space vacated by uprooted Kurds fleeing the 2016 invasion. It’s a cynical move by Erdogan, says the SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, accusing him of wanting to “change the demography” of the region. Turkey’s refugees – mostly ethnic Arabs – are being purposely resettled in Kurdish majority areas to break the group’s territorial grip, they argue. Experts agree that Ankara’s strategy involves a high risk of racial confrontation, and urge multilateral involvement to calm the situation.

“Most of [the] refugees are Arab, so moving them into Kurdish areas could result in ethnic tensions and violence,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at The Washington Institute, a think tank. “Washington and Ankara will therefore need to coordinate their efforts closely to prevent clashes and ensure that Kurdish civilians in northeast Syria are not displaced”.

Cooperation is also needed on the resurgent IS threat. Despite its territorial defeat, the so-called caliphate has maintained a deadly insurgency in Syria. Growing tensions with Turkey are drawing focus and resources away from the frontline with IS, YPG commanders say, allowing the terrorists to regroup. The Kurds also preside over some 10,000 IS prisoners – any breakdown in their ability to guard the inmates could have catastrophic consequences.  

The US aren’t blind to this, but President Trump is steadfast in his demand for a wholesale Syria withdrawal, regardless the consequences. With America’s future involvement in serious doubt, an almighty power vacuum is brewing in Syria. Turkey and Russia will likely be the key actors, while a recovering IS is certain to play a critical role. And in the middle are the terrorists’ one-time vanquishers, the Kurds. They’ve shown their pedigree in battle, but against the Turks they stand little chance – especially without US support. Facing a threat both military and demographic, the SDF’s time could well be limited.