Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has paid an unscheduled visit to the built-up Turkish troops in Şanlıurfa at Syria border on August 16 with Chief of Joint Staff General Yaşar Güler and force commanders.
The obvious aim of the visit is to supervise the process of establishing a Joint Operation Centre with the U.S. forces in order to form a Safe Zone on the Syrian side of the border in response to Turkish demands against the threats of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG) presence; the militants have been used a ground force by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) since 2014 in the fight against ISIS. Also accompanied by Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) Director Hakan Fidan, Akar said following his inspection that he hoped the Operation Center would be ready by next week and Turkey was determined to eliminate threats to its security. (*) Because another aim of his presence at the border was to urge the Donald Trump Administration to take action without further delay as the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan says Turkey was determined to get into Syria to eliminate the threat with or without the help of U.S., Turkey’s NATO partner.
Akar visit was followed by another visit to the area on August 15 by Lieutenant General Stephen Twitty, the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Forces in Europe (EUCOM), who is based in Stuttgart, Germany. After visiting the first party of U.S. troops that arrived in Şanlıurfa on August 12 for the establishment of a Joint Task Force with the Turkish military, Twitty arrived in Ankara for military-to-military talks on the operational details of the Safe Zone as reported by Turkish media. The agreement to establish a task force was agreed between Turkish and American officials in Ankara on August 7 after months-long talks, which took place under the shadow of a major problem: the American decision to “unwind” Turkey from the joint production and sale of F-35 fighter jets in retaliation of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian built S-400 air defence system.
For the last two days there have been commentaries in Turkish media about potential problems since the Safe Zone operation will be under CENTCOM command but the coordination center in Şanlıurfa is a EUCOM operation. Due to being NATO members, Turkish-American military cooperation is with the EUCOM but CENTCOM is in charge with the American operations in the Greater Middle East area. And since Turkey refused to take part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the CENTCOM has not been known to be sympathetic to Turkey and although the PKK has been designated by the U.S. Government as a terrorist organization, they are keen to work with the PKK’s Syria extension YPG, providing arms and high quality military training to them, making Turkish government furious.
But sources close to developments told YetkinReport that the coordination center will be “the mechanism for deconflicting”. A source who asked to remain anonymous said that, if there were any problems or differences of opinion that “exceed the ability” of the coordination center to solve they would be resolved by the Joint Staff”. The source “did not think” that a “CENTCOM-EUCOM friction will be a big problem” because there was a “common understanding” of the problem.
As a first step of the joint operation, Turkish UAVs have started to fly over in North East of Syria to observe the YPG positions where air space is controlled by the U.S. since August 14, as announced by the Turkish Defense Ministry.
Turkey wants a safe zone of 30-35 kilometer-deep (as it was first voiced by Trump as “20 miles”), 140 km long (which forms a small part of 913 kilometer-long border with Syria) in which there would be no active YPG militants, no heavy guns used by them, the operation would be monitored by joint patrols by Turkish and American soldiers and those Syrian citizens who migrated to Turkey from towns and villages in that zone due to the civil war would be permitted to return to their homes in time. Turkish officials who refer to the American statements underline that the ISIS threat was eliminated in the north of the country, which a major 2016 Turkish military incursion into Syria in 2016 with the cooperation of Russians contributed to. The depth of the zone is also important for the Turkish military since it covers the main East-West state road, namely M-4, connecting Iraq to Syria which is extensively used by the YPG in their transfers between the PKK headquarters in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq and their strongholds in Syria.
In the meantime the Turkish military has been carrying out a major military operation in north of Iraq against the PKK positions, in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government for nearly two months now, where a newly built Turkish missile “Bora” with nearly 300 km range was used for the first time.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has recently said in answer to opposition parties’ questions that the government would not let any “new stalling” by Americans. President Erdoğan has recently said that the Turkish history was “full of victories in August” and was ready to set new example. Pro government media likes to bring up the Seljuk army win against Byzantines on Aug 26, 1071, Ottoman army’s win against Egyptians on Aug 24, 1517 and the Turkish army win against invading Greek armies on Aug 30, 1922. With a symbolic highlight, the Turkish operation into Syria in 2016 was launched on Aug 24; that was only 5 weeks after a defeated military coup attempt by a group in the army, indicted to be masterminded by Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher living in the U.S.
(*) Updated on August 16, 18:36.