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Turkey’s national security council says steps to be taken immediately to defeat threats from Syria

Turkey’s national security council said steps should be taken “immediately and resolutely” to defeat threats against the country from western Syria, increasing the likelihood of a military intervention in the majority-Kurd Efrin area of Syria.

A Wednesday, January 17 meeting chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Milli Güvenlik Kurulu which includes Turkish military Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar and other senior military leaders and select members of the Council of Ministers, also said that Turkey will not allow a “terror corridor” and “terrorist army” to be established in Syria, a reference to the Syrian Border Security Force recently revealed by the U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State.

Referring to the United States, an MGK statement said: “It is regrettable that a state, which is part of NATO and our ally in bilateral relations, declares the terrorists as its partner and provides them with weapons, without any concern for our safety.”

The council also said that weapons, tools and materials provided to the YPG must be collected without delay. Pentagon spokesperson Colonel Rob Manning reiterated the United States position regarding the return of weapons provided to the SDF in November. “It is our intent to regain large vehicles and heavy or crew-served weapons once specific threats have been defeated,” Manning said.

The MGK also recommended an extension of Turkey’s state of emergency until the presidential elections in 2019. The state of emergency has been in place since July 20, 2016.

Turkey talks up Efrin, Manbij op

Government figures have repeatedly said that Turkey will imminently conduct a military operation in northern Syria, ramping up to daily since Saturday, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly signalled an imminent military operation in Syria in the city of Manbij and the majority Kurdish canton of Efrin if the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) do not withdraw, saying “they will see what we’ll do in about a week.”

“Turkey’s precautions against YPG/PKK cannot be limited to only Afrin. There is also Manbij and east of the Euphrates River,” foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday, adding that the U.S. plan to establish the Syrian Border Security Force “irreversibly harms U.S.-Turkey ties.”

Turkey views the predominantly Kurdish YPG and its linked PYD political party as extensions of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency mainly in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southwest. The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, among others, but the YPG is not so designated by the U.S. or E.U.

In a Wednesday statement, the PYD called on the international community to “take responsibility toward more than a million people living in Afrin,” urging the United Nations to create a safe zone in northern Syria.

“The Turkish regime … has become a threat to any solution to the Syrian crisis,” it added.

YPG Commander Sipan Hemo told ANF on Tuesday that the force was ready to “protect the Kurdish people’s gains in Rojava,” the area of northern Syria under Kurdish control.

“We as YPG will strongly respond to whoever attacks and threatens Afrin, Rojava or anywhere else, let it be Erdogan or someone else. This is a legitimate right and our duty which we will duly perform,” Hemo said.

Coalition-backed Syrian border Security Force plan raises tensions

Turkish rhetoric increased after CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale told The Defense Post that the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces were working jointly to train a 30,000-strong Syrian border security force. The BSF will be partly composed of veteran fighters and operate under the leadership of the SDF, the backbone of which is made of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Erdogan condemned the decision to form the Border Security Force on Monday, branding it “a terrorist army” along the Turkish border. “Turkey will kill that army before it is born,” Anadolu Agency reported Erdogan as saying.

Turkish military preparations

The Turkish military build-up on its Syrian border to the north and west of Efrin has increased in pace in recent days, with troops and armored vehicles including tanks massing in readiness.

Turkish military forces moved into Syria to the south of Efrin in October, ostensibly to ensure the establishment, observation and continuation of a ceasefire agreement within the framework of the Astana talks process.

Turkey along with Syrian rebel groups it supports launched the Euphrates Shield offensive in northern Syria in 2016 to both push Islamic State away from the border and to prevent the Efrin canton from geographically joining the rest of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups hold territory to the east of Efrin. On Tuesday, Erdogan said Syrian rebel groups would again be involved in any operation against Efrin.

Coalition will not support YPG in Efrin

“Afrin is not located within the Coalition’s area of operations,” a U.S. military spokesperson told The Region on Tuesday.

“The Coalition’s mission has not changed: to defeat ISIS [Daesh] in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and set conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability,” Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told Anadolu Agency on Tuesday. “We are not operating in Afrin. We are supporting our partners in defeating remaining ISIS [Daesh] pockets along the Middle Euphrates River Valley, specifically in areas north of Abu Kamal, on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.”

“We don’t consider them as part of our Defeat ISIS operations which is what we are doing there and we do not support them,” Pentagon spokesperson Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told Anadolu on Tuesday. “We are not involved with them at all … There is no train-advise and assist program going [on] in Afrin.”

Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington told The Region that the U.S. sees Efrin as someone else’s problem. “From the U.S. perspective, Afrin falls under the Northwest Syria De-Escalation Zone, and therefore is Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s problem to solve. Put simply, Afrin does not register as a strategic priority for the U.S. in Syria, while Raqqa does,” Heras said.

Importance of Efrin

Efrin Region (previously Efrin Canton) is one of the three de facto autonomous regions in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Declared autonomous in January 2014, the area is majority Kurdish with a sizable Arab population.

Turkey lies to both the north and west and Turkish-backed armed Syrian groups to the south. Rebels control the area to the east, captured in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation.

Ankara fears that Syrian Kurds could unite Efrin with their two other cantons and establish a “Kurdish corridor” along the Turkey-Syria border.

Russia currently controls the airspace over Efrin, so Turkey won’t be able to launch an air offensive without Moscow’s approval.

Although Russia also opposes the U.S. plan to build a Syrian border force, any attempt by Turkey to attack Efrin could risk relations between the two countries. Russia also has a presence in the region: There is a Russian base at Kafr Jana, in the Baath Vanguard Camp.

“The Kurds are definitely part of the Syrian nation and we need to take their interests into consideration,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during his annual press conference on Tuesday.

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