Turkey has increased its military deployment to the Syrian border over the past few days as the first instalment of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system begins today.
According to a report by the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, over the past two days, over 50 tanks and artillery batteries were transported to the area around Tal Abyad in Syria, next to the Turkish border district of Akcakale.
Abdullah Agar, a former military officer and security expert, said yesterday that “the latest deployments and tactical mobility on the ground have very strong indications for an offensive east of the Euphrates.”
In the north of Syria near the Turkish border, there have been a number of incidents and updates which have concerned Turkey greatly over the past few months, the most prominent of which has been reports of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) aiming to create a separate state east of the Euphrates River. The SDF, consisting of a mix of ethnic groups but being predominantly Kurdish-led, has allegedly participated in meetings organised by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States (US) in the region, calling on the various Arab tribes in northern Syria to support the proposition.
Last month, many of the tribal leaders rejected the separatist plans and refused to participate in the meetings, pledging their loyalty mainly to Damascus and a “unified Syria”. The incident followed on from previous clashes between tribes and a common discontent and distrust at SDF rule in the area.
The Turkish military has previous conducted two major operations in Syria – “Operation Euphrates Shield” in 2016-2017, and “Operation Olive Branch” in 2018 – which aimed to clear the border region of the Kurdish militias, particularly the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). With Turkey’s presence firmly established in north-western Syria and its support guaranteed to its allies, it has been looking east towards the rest of the YPG-held territory.
Turkey sees the YPG and other Kurdish militias as a threat to its border and national security, and has linked the group to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organisation operating within Turkey. Such an operation to further push the YPG back was stalled last year, however, due to the announcement by US President Donald Trump of the withdrawal of American troops from Syria.
While the deployment of military hardware to northern Syria increases and the possibility of a new Turkish military operation east of the Euphrates is underway, the S-400 system is expected to be fully installed within four to six weeks and to be set up in the Turkish town of Suruc, close to the border with Syria.