Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, December 24, 2018: “We consider the Kurdish problem as our own matter.”

Preparing to expand its presence in northern Syria — and possibly to attack Kurdish-held areas — Turkey has drawn its line with the US, following Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw all American troops.

Alongside Syrian rebels, Turkish forces have moved into northwest Syria — including much of the Kurdish canton of Afrin, taken in March. But the situation has been shaken by Trump’s decision, made during a December 14 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to remove the American personnel supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Since its creation in October 2015, the SDF has taken much of northern and eastern Syria from the Islamic State. However, Ankara considers the YPG militia, the leading group in the SDF, to be part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.

Before Trump’s announcement of the US withdrawal on December 19, Erdoğan had been speaking of an imminent offensive against the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Cezire. But he was taken aback by Trump’s outburst during their call, “We’ll leave it to you”, reportedly because Turkish troops are not yet ready to move into areas where US forces are present. So Ankara announced that the offensive has been postponed, ostensibly to avoid “friendly fire” on withdrawing US forces.

“Determined to Eradicate Daesh”

While the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia are likely to be Erdoğan’s prime concern, Ankara propped up Trump’s line on Monday that Turkey will be focusing on the Islamic State.

Daily Sabah, close to the Erdoğan Government, headlines, “Ankara is determined to eradicate Daesh from its borders more than ever”. However — given that Erdoğan prompted Trump’s December 14 announcement with the statement that ISIS is “99% defeated” — the site adds, “Although the terrorist group has already been facing extinction for quite some time now thanks to previous offensives by the Turkish military”.

Still, Erdoğan could not resist pulling back the curtain to return to the Kurdish issue. Speaking on Monday, he framed Turkish intervention as defense of Arabs against Kurdish groups.

We see the security and peace of the Arabs in Syria as our own. We consider the Kurdish problem as our own matter.

He then tried to distinguish between a Kurdish people and the PYD/YPG, claiming a liberation of the Kurds from the political and military factions: “Why are we in Syria now? To give the freedom of our Syrian brothers back to them, to give the freedom of our Kurdish brothers back to them, not to terror organizations.”

Turkish media buttressed the message with a story claiming YPG oppression of Syria’s Assyrian minority. Based on an Assyrian inhabitant who did not want to share his name out for fear for his safety”, they wrote:

The terrorist organization has been raiding villages especially in the northeastern Qamishli province and border region of Habur, which is mostly inhabited by Assyrian people.

SDF Appeals for International Support

The Syrian Democratic Forces issued a statement on Monday calling on support from the international community.

Spokesman Kino Gabriel said four million people in northeast Syria are at risk from Turkish attacks. He called for dialogue instead of conflict.