A day after Turkey-led forces took control of Efrin, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 19 vowed to expand Turkey’s campaign in Syria to other Kurdish-held territory as far as the Iraq border in the east, and again threatened a military operation against Sinjar in Iraq.
Indicating there was no plan for the Turkish army to call off its offensive after Turkish troops and Syrian opposition fighters took control of Efrin virtually unopposed on Sunday, Erdogan described the taking of the town as merely a “comma” and warned that Turkey could launch a surprise attack on Kurdish strongholds in Iraq.
He said the campaign in Syria, led by the Turkish Armed Forces alongside allied Syrian opposition fighters, could now extend as far as Qamishli, the most easterly Syrian town held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) before the Iraq border, and the main administrative centre for the self-declared Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
Turkey sees the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state, but the mainly Kurdish militia is also the backbone of the U.S.-led Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that successfully expelled the Islamic State from large parts of eastern Syria including Raqqa.
Erdogan described Efrin’s capture after almost two months as a “major stage” of Operation Olive Branch, the military incursion that Turkey says is designed to increase control of its border in northern Syria.
“We marked a comma. God willing a full stop will come next,” Erdogan said.
“Now we will continue this process until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobane], Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn [Serekaniye] and Qamishli,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
Kurds have long held that Turkey would expand its operation to the east. In January, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, Sinam Mohamed, told reporters that she believed that after Efrin, Turkey would target all of northern Syria.
The symbolic importance of Kobane cannot be overstated. The city which lies to the east of the Euphrates river is where Kurds in 2015 halted a bloody six-month Islamic State onslaught with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
Manbij, a major town 100 km east of Efrin but to the west of the Euphrates is a particular geo-political flashpoint due to the U.S. military presence there, raising the risk of confrontation between two NATO allies.
After the SDF recaptured Manbij from Islamic State in August 2016, the YPG said it handed its points of control west of the Euphrates river to the SDF-aligned Manbij Military Council as it had agreed ahead of the offensive. Turkey has long disputed this version of events, and some YPG fighters remain in the city.
The U.S. confirmed it had deployed forces to the Manbij area in March 2017, saying that their role was to reassure the SDF and deter hostilities between factions on the ground, but since then Turkey-backed FSA fighters have often fired at MMC forces near the frontline.
The Defense Post