Turkey Prepares to Expand Safe Zones in Syria Despite US Warnings

A US soldier during a patrol in the countryside of Qamishli (File photo: AFP)
A US soldier during a patrol in the countryside of Qamishli (File photo: AFP)
TT

Turkey Prepares to Expand Safe Zones in Syria Despite US Warnings

A US soldier during a patrol in the countryside of Qamishli (File photo: AFP)
A US soldier during a patrol in the countryside of Qamishli (File photo: AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent statement led to a dispute with the US concerning the safe zones in Syria.

Erdogan on Monday said Ankara would soon launch new military operations along its southern borders to create safe zones 30 km (20 miles) deep to combat what he characterized as terrorist threats from these regions.

Erdogan has said the National Security Council would make decisions on military operations at its Thursday meeting.

Recent reports stated that Turkish armed forces and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army might be targeting Tal Rifaat, Ayn al-Arab (Kobani), Ain Issa, and Manbij.

Turkish sources said that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed with the US on October 17, 2019, has not been implemented. It addresses the withdrawal of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the largest component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to 30 km from the southern Turkish border.

The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the MoU was signed to stop the military operation "Peace Spring," which Turkey launched on October 9, 2019, in the SDF-controlled areas east of the Euphrates.

They explained that the withdrawal process was scheduled within five days, but it never happened.

Earlier, the United States warned of any new attack in northern Syria, saying it would undermine stability in the region and endanger its forces.

"We are deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria, and in particular, its impact on the civilian population there," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday.

"We recognize Turkey's legitimate security concerns on Turkey's southern border, but any new offensive would further undermine regional stability and put at risk US forces and the coalition's campaign against ISIS," he said.

Washington was expecting Ankara to live up to an October 2019 joint statement, including a halt in offensive operations in northeastern Syria, Price said.

"We condemn any escalation. We support the maintenance of the current ceasefire lines."

Meanwhile, the Syrian Foreign Ministry sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council describing Turkey's actions as illegitimate.

"They amount to what can be described as war crimes and crimes against humanity," it said in a statement carried by the state news agency.

Turkey objects to Finland and Sweden's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over their alleged support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the YPG, two groups that Ankara classifies as terrorist organizations.

Observers considered that Erdogan's sudden announcement reflects his belief that the West will not oppose such operations because they need Turkey's support for the two European countries' bid to join NATO.

They pointed out that the Turkish army's movement against the YPG in Syria, Washington's closest ally in the war against ISIS, has always been possible despite the relative calm along the border.

Observers considered that Erdogan is seeking to seize the opportunity to achieve his long-standing goal of establishing a zone free of Kurdish militants along the Turkish border with Syria.

Possible targets of the Turkish operation

The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said preparations had been made for a new operation to expand "safe zones" already set up in northern Syria, with several goals identified.

Turkish control of the towns, which lie on or close to a central stretch of the 911-km-long border with Syria, could extend and deepen its military presence near the Mediterranean coast along nearly three-quarters of the frontier.

YPG spokesman Nuri Mahmoud told Reuters the group took Erdogan's threats very seriously: "The international coalition, America, and Russia should commit to the pledges they made to this region. Their presence in our areas must be meaningful, in the sense that it stops the repeated attacks on our people."

The Yeni Safak newspaper said the most critical target of the latest operation would be Tal Rifaat, which it said Kurdish fighters used as a base to launch attacks in the Afrin, Azaz, and Jarablus areas controlled by Turkey and Ankara-backed Syrian fighters.

Analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group Dareen Khalifa said it was unclear whether Erdogan was talking about an operation in Tal Rifaat or further east, but she highlighted the town's role.

She said Russia had not been addressing his concerns on militant attacks on Turkish-controlled areas from Tal Rifaat and that Erdogan has been saying for years that Tal Rifaat needs to be captured.

According to a Reuters report, the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani may be another potential target.

The YPG's defeat of ISIS militants there in 2015 helped turn the tide against the group.

"Kobani represents the value of a global victory in the war against terrorism," a YPG spokesman said.

Mahmoud asserted that "there's no doubt that our forces will do what is needed to defend" the area.

However, Khalifa played down the prospects of Turkey targeting Kobani.

"I don't think there's any interest in getting stuck in Kobani," she said, pointing to the significant demographic changes and reaction if the Kurdish population fled.

She said that while US forces were not in Manbij physically, it is a US zone of influence, so "I expect it also to trigger a US reaction."



Israel Pounds Central Gaza Camps, Deepens Invasion of Rafah

A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS
A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS
TT

Israel Pounds Central Gaza Camps, Deepens Invasion of Rafah

A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS
A view of a damaged building, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Rafah Crossing, Gaza, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video released on June 19, 2024. Doron Kadosh, Glz/via REUTERS

Israeli forces pounded areas in the central Gaza Strip overnight, killing three people and wounding dozens of others, according to medics, while tanks deepened their invasion into Rafah in the south, residents said.
Israeli planes struck a house in Al-Nuseirat camp, killing two people and wounding 12 others, while tanks shelled areas in Al-Maghazi and Al-Bureij camps, wounding many other people, health officials said, according to Reuters. Nuseirat, Maghazi, and Bureij are three of Gaza's eight historic refugee camps.
In Deir al-Balah, a city packed with displaced people in the central Gaza Strip, an Israeli airstrike killed one Palestinian and wounded several others on Thursday, medics said.
The Israeli military said on Wednesday forces were continuing their operations across the enclave targeting militants and military infrastructure in what it described as "precise, intelligence-based" activities.
More than eight months into the war in Gaza, Israel's advance is now focused on the two last areas its forces had yet to storm: Rafah on Gaza's southern edge and the area surrounding Deir al-Balah in the center. The operations have forced more than a million people to flee since May, the vast majority already displaced from other parts of the enclave.
In Rafah, near the border with Egypt, Israeli tanks stationed deep in the western and central areas of the city stepped up bombardment, forcing more families living in the far coastal areas to flee northward. Some residents said the pace of the raid has been accelerated in the past two days.
"The tanks took control of most of the areas in Rafah. People living by the beach have also started to leave toward Khan Younis and central areas in fear because of the continued bombardment," said Abu Wasim, a resident from Rafah's Al-Shaboura neighborhood, who quit his home over a week ago before tanks rolled in reaching the heart of the city.
Rafah housed over half of Gaza's 2.3 million people until May 7 when Israeli forces began the ground offensive into the city. Fewer than 100,000 are now believed to be left behind.
There has been no sign of let-up in the fighting as efforts by international mediators, backed by the United States, have failed to persuade Israel and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire.
The armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad said fighters battled Israeli forces with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs, and have in some areas detonated pre-planted explosive devices against army units.
On Thursday, Israeli authorities freed 33 Palestinians who had been detained during the past months by Israeli forces in different areas of the enclave. The freed detainees were admitted into Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip after they complained of torture and mistreatment by Israeli jailers.