Turkey's operation in Syria fraught with risk: analysts

Clare Byrne
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Turkey says its unprecedented operation on the Syrian border aims to rid the area of both the Islamic State group and anti-IS Kurdish YPG militia

Turkey says its unprecedented operation on the Syrian border aims to rid the area of both the Islamic State group and anti-IS Kurdish YPG militia (AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic)

Istanbul (AFP) - Turkey's week-old cross-border operation in Syria could become a drawn-out affair that stokes tensions with Washington if Ankara continues to take the fight to US-backed Kurdish fighters, analysts say.

Turkey says its unprecedented offensive aims to rid the border of both the Islamic State group and the anti-IS Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara also considers a terrorist group.

But since sending in tanks to help Syrian Arab rebels rout IS from the border town of Jarabulus last week, Turkey’s fight has been mainly with forces affiliated to the YPG.

On Tuesday, the US said it had brokered a "loose agreement" between the two sides to suspend hostilities "for at least the next couple of days".

Turkey neither confirmed nor denied the claim, saying only it awaited the fulfillment of a Kurdish promise to the US to retreat east of the Euphrates river "as soon as possible."

Deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus confirmed Monday the army aimed to prevent the creation of a Kurdish-controlled corridor running nearly the entire length of the border, which would bolster Kurdish PKK rebels in southeast Turkey.

But defending a buffer zone between Kurdish-controlled areas on either side of the Euphrates could suck Turkey deeper into the five-year conflict, said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"Ultimately, Syria could yet turn into a territorial extension of the protracted fighting between Turkey and the PKK going on since 1984," he warned.

- 'Museum tanks' -

By Monday, Turkish forces and their rebel allies had advanced to within around 15 kilometres of Manbij, a city west of the Euphrates taken by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from IS earlier this month.

Turkey has demanded that pro- Kurdish forces leave the mainly Arab town.

Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East said any further advances would leave the Turks exposed.

On Saturday, Turkey lost a soldier whose tank was hit by a missile -- its first casualty in the operation.

The army said it had killed 25 "terrorists" -- claims disputed by a monitoring group which said Turkish strikes had killed dozens of mostly civilians.

"Everything they've done so far has been easy and they've already taken a loss," Stein said, referring to Turkey.

"If they want to fight through (to Manbij) they’ll take more casualties," he said calling the M60 tanks deployed by Turkey "museum pieces" that are vulnerable to roadside bombs.

- Border beachhead -

So far Turkey has kept the operation relatively small, deploying only a few dozen tanks and a few hundred troops alongside a larger force of Syrian rebels.

But as it gains ground it could be forced to step up its presence, to help the rebels hold their ground.

"What Turkey does not want is for that territory to fall back into the hands of the Islamic State or the Syrian Kurds," Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the EDAM think tank in Istanbul, said.

Ulgen said he expected the Turkish army to set up a beachhead around Jarabulus, advancing and retreating from there for surgical strikes.

Further clashes with the YPG would add to tensions with NATO ally Washington, which loudly protested the weekend clashes, calling on both sides to focus their fire on Islamic State.

"It is hard to see how this does not get messy," the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) wrote in a paper.

"For the Kurds the entire conflict has been about establishing a quasi-state of their own within Syria; for Turkey it is now about preventing such an outcome."

Turkey's foray has also raised questions about its stance in Syria's core conflict, between Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the various rebel factions trying to oust him.

Turkey has been a fierce opponent of Assad but recently appeared to soften its stance.

Both Russia and Damascus issued only muted protests when Turkish tanks rumbled into Syria, flanked by anti-Assad rebels.

That could change if the offensive spurs on rebels the Syrian regime in the battered city of Aleppo and other flashpoints.

"In the end, it is hard to imagine that the different actors can simultaneously remain in alignment on the Kurdish question while maintaining a brutal fight elsewhere," the ECFR said.

Back at home, the operation could also lead to an escalation in the fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK.

The PKK have killed hundreds of Turkish security force members since a truce fell apart last year while a PKK offshoot has claimed three suicide bombings in Istanbul and Ankara.

"If there is a more sustained confrontation with the YPG that will certainly have a negative impact... in relation to the ongoing struggle against the PKK," Ulgen said.