October 18, 2021 | Policy Brief

Turkey Threatens New Military Offensive in Northern Syria

October 18, 2021 | Policy Brief

Turkey Threatens New Military Offensive in Northern Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on October 11 that he has “no patience left” for attacks by Syrian Kurdish fighters targeting Turkey’s border towns and Turkish forces in northern Syria, while senior Turkish officials warned more explicitly of military action if the United States does not take steps to address Ankara’s concerns. These threats serve to put pressure on Washington ahead of Erdogan’s planned meeting with President Joe Biden later this month.

Erdogan said his patience had run out after a guided missile attack killed two Turkish police officers in the Azaz region of northern Syria on October 10. Separately, five mortar shells fired from Syria landed inside Turkey, although there were no casualties. Ankara blamed the attacks on the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Washington’s partners in the fight against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria.

The YPG grew out of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Washington and Ankara consider a terrorist organization. One source claims that the Afrin Liberation Forces, a Syrian Kurdish insurgent group that does not acknowledge any affiliation with the YPG or SDF, carried out the guided missile attack.

Erdogan has already launched three military interventions against the Kurdish-led SDF in Syria, resulting in a growing zone of Turkish control inside the war-torn country. The third intervention, in late 2019, followed a phone call between Erdogan and President Donald Trump in which Trump left the impression that he did not oppose the attack. However, following a bipartisan backlash in Washington, Trump employed sanctions to force Ankara to accept a cease-fire.

The former president issued Executive Order 13894 in October 2019, authorizing sanctions on Turkish officials and entities responsible for destabilizing Syria. Earlier this month, Biden extended that authorization for another year, condemning, as Trump had, “the actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria, [which] undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region.”

The application of such language to a NATO ally is unprecedented, reflecting the bilateral antagonism that has grown during Erdogan’s lengthy tenure. In July, the Biden administration also sanctioned Ahrar al-Sharqiya, one of Turkey’s Islamist proxies in northern Syria, marking the first U.S. designation against such groups. According to the Treasury Department, “Ahrar al-Sharqiya has committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture, and seizures of private property.”

These actions by the Biden administration stand in contrast to the administration’s marked silence regarding Erdogan’s provocations both at home and abroad since the White House’s ill-advised decision to outsource security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to Ankara following the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

If the administration wants to deter Erdogan from further adventurism in Syria and from endangering the country’s vulnerable minorities, the White House should make clear that it is prepared to use the authorities in Executive Order 13894. During the brief interval in 2019 during which Trump imposed sanctions, the Turkish president quickly became amenable to a cease-fire in Syria.

Biden should be equally firm in dealing with the full range of Erdogan’s provocations, from creating a permissive environment for terror finance to hosting senior Hamas officials, facilitating sanctions evasion by Iran and Venezuela, buying advanced Russian weapons, arming Islamist forces in Libya, imprisoning journalists, propagating antisemitic conspiracy theories, and more. Washington should also pressure the SDF to refrain from affiliating with or assisting any insurgent groups implicated in attacks targeting Turkey or Turkish forces, while intensifying efforts to find a modus vivendi between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds.

Finally, the White House should end its tacit support for Arab states’ diplomatic rehabilitation of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. If Washington lacks the resolve to isolate Assad, Erdogan will know that lesser offenders have nothing to fear.

Aykan Erdemir is senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from the authors, the Turkey Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan and David on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Kurds Sanctions and Illicit Finance Syria Turkey