Turkey says there is no way it will back out of its plan to launch a military offensive in northern Syria regardless of the consequences, defying growing international calls to pull the plug on the imminent operation.
The Turkish parliament on Tuesday extended the government’s mandate to launch “anti-terror” operations in neighboring Iraq and Syria, effectively greenlighting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to press ahead with a vast incursion in northern Syria.
Erdogan said Saturday that it necessary to purge the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the region so that Turkey can create a safe zone where it will relocate millions of refugees.
The Kurdish militant group is the backbone of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF maintains close ties to the United States but Ankara regards the YPG as the military wing of Turkey’s homegrown Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for autonomy since the mid-1980s.
“Turkey will not accept a terror corridor or terror state right next to its borders under any circumstances, whatever the cost,” Vice President, Fuat Oktay, said late Tuesday.
He noted that Turkey prioritizes national security plans and could never be “controlled by threats.”
No military solution to conflict in Syria: UN chief
Ankara’s plan for an extensive ground and air operation in northeastern Syria has also concerned the United Nations, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for “maximum restraint” and the protection of civilians.
“The Secretary-General is following with great concern recent statements regarding northeastern Syria, in particular the risk to civilians from any potential military actions,” Stephane Dujarric, the UN chief’s spokesperson, said in a statement on Tuesday. “He calls on all parties to exercise maximum restraint.”
Guterres also emphasized “that civilians and civilian infrastructure need to be protected at all times and that sustained, unimpeded and safe humanitarian access to civilians in need must be guaranteed in order to allow the United Nations and its humanitarian partners to continue to carry out their critical work in northern Syria,” according to the statement.
“The Secretary-General reiterates that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict,” Guterres said, noting that the only way forward was by following the “UN-facilitated political process pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2254.”
The resolution was passed unanimously in 2015 and calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.
Guterres’ remarks followed warnings by Iran and Russia that the offensive could further escalate tensions in Syria. The Damascus government has also condemned the plan.
Iran and Russia have both advised Turkey to halt the attack and give diplomacy a chance at a time when Syria is already struggling to achieve sustainable peace.
The US has kept sending mixed signals with regard to Turkey’s plan. President Donald Trump initially gave the go-ahead for the offensive by announcing that he will pull out US forces from the region.
But shortly afterwards, he threatened to totally “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the country did anything “off limits” in Syria, falling short of clarifying exactly where the limits lay.
Shocked at Washington’s sudden abandoning of its support and leaving its allied Kurdish forces vulnerable to a Turkish incursion, the SDF called the move “a stab in the back.”
But Trump continued to offer verbal support to the Syrian Kurds, dismissing reports that the US had turned its back on them.
“In no way have we abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters,” he said in a tweet.
Turkish Parliament Speaker, Mustafa Sentop, said the remarks by Trump were aimed at placating critics at home, who think the president has sold out Washington’s Kurdish allies.
In a sudden change of heart, the US, which had long opposed a Turkish incursion, said Sunday that it would not stop a Turkish offensive but would not get involved in one either.
Meanwhile, the Turkish deputy parliament speaker relayed this message to American officials that “Turkey is not a country which can be disciplined with external commands and can be brought to its knees,”
“Notably, the US and all countries should know that Turkey has the stuff and soul to wage a similar war of independence that it had before against imperialism,” Levent Gök told lawmakers.
Turkish forces to enter Syria shortly
Turkish officials said on Wednesday that final preparations were already in place but that the incursion had not yet begun.They explained that Turkish soldiers had removed a concrete section of the border wall, according to Reuters.
On Tuesday night, Erdogan’s communications director said forces deployed to the border areas were ready to enter Syria at any moment. He claimed that the attack was aimed at neutralizing the remnants of the Daesh terrorist group.
“The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army, will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly,” Fahrettin Altun tweeted.
“YPG militants have two options: They can defect or we will have to stop them from disrupting our counter-ISIS efforts,” he said, referring to Daesh by an alternative acronym.
SDF vows to fight back, issues call to arms
The SDF announced late Tuesday that Turkey had already started shelling its positions near the border.
“There were no injuries to our forces,” the group said in a tweet. “We didn’t respond to this unprovoked attack. We are prepared to defend the people and the people of NE #Syria.”
Gabriel Kino, a SDF spokesman, also told Al Jazeera that the militia was ready to fight back.
“Threats made by Turkey to attack the area is not something new, they have constantly done it for years. We as Syrian Democratic Forces take the matter into account and are fully prepared to fiercely respond to any imminent attack on Syrian soil,” Kino said.
Early on Wednesday, the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria asked civilians to take up arms and defend the region against the Turkish offensive.
“We announce three days of general mobilization in northern and eastern Syria,” it said in a statement, calling on all civilians to “head to the border with Turkey to fulfill their duty.”
Concerns over Daesh prisoners in SDF custody
Meanwhile, the prospect of an all-out war between the SDF and the Turkish armed forces has raised concerns about the fate of more than 12,000 suspected Daesh militants, including many foreign nationals, who are being kept in several SDF-run prisons across northern Syria.
SDF Commander General, Mazloum Kobani, said Tuesday that guarding the prisoners was now a “second priority” as thousands of SDF fighters had been sent to the border to defend their own families.
“This is a very big problem,” Kobani told NBC News through a translator. “Nobody has helped in this regard.”
More than 58,000 family members of the Daesh militants also live across SDF-controlled areas, according to reports.
Umit Yalcin, Turkey’s ambassador to Britain called on all countries to take back their suspected Daesh fighters.
“All the countries should take back their own ‘terrorist’ fighters or ‘terrorists’. That is the ideal thing. Because when they were leaving their countries, they had their nationalities and passports,” he told British broadcaster Sky News on Tuesday.
“Those countries should take those people back to their own countries and they can bring them justice, or take them to court or rehabilitate them,” he added.