The withdrawal of some Russian forces from Syria is one of the determining factors for Turkey's planned military operation into the country, Turkish military sources have revealed.
According to the London-based news organisation Middle East Eye, anonymous sources in the Turkish military who are familiar with the situation acknowledged that the timing of its planned offensive into north-east Syria is partly due to Russia's withdrawal of its forces and mercenaries from some bases in the country to redeploy them to Moscow's ongoing offensive in Ukraine.
One of the sources reiterated to the paper that it was not the sole or main reason for the operation planning, however, saying that "This isn't solely about Russia getting bogged down in Ukraine. There are Ankara's own concerns and intelligence on PKK activities in Syria." Turkey's main concern which "triggered a response," he said, was "the recent PKK activities to transfer fresh forces and ammunition to Iraq from Syria."
The source's mention of activities of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), the Kurdish separatist group designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and Western nations, refers to the Kurdish militias in Syria – the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which Ankara claims are affiliated with the PKK.
Aside from the partial Russian withdrawal for its invasion of Ukraine and the need to cut off the activities of the Kurdish militias in Syria from spreading into Iraq, the other primary reason for Turkey's planned military incursion is to clear the 30-kilometre-deep area into north-east Syria which it aims to transform into a 'safe zone' to resettle at least a million Syrian refugees. "These two operations must continue simultaneously," the source said.
When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the planned operation last month, he stated that "We will clean up Tal Rifaat and Manbij," two key northern Syrian cities currently held by the SDF.
According to the military source, Tal Rifaat is a major strategic goal of Turkey's as it "is hosting 60 percent of the clean water in the region". That would further enable the resettlement of Syrian refugees, he said, stating that "The return of displaced locals and the management of the water resources is fundamental. It will revive agriculture and encourage returns."
The decreased presence of Russian forces in Tal Rifaat – which was the second-largest military presence in the area – makes Turkey's plans easier, the source acknowledged. "Russia is finding it hard to resupply its troops in Tal Rifaat and has already abandoned some of its bases near Aleppo to Iranians."
Amid that withdrawal, the Iranian militias in the area would be a primary threat as they "don't want [Turkish-backed] Syrian rebel forces to have a presence near Aleppo". As for the Syrian military forces fighting under the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the source said that Ankara does not expect them to pose a threat or attempt to repel a Turkish offensive.
The comments by the Turkish military sources seem to confirm what many analysts were predicting over the past few months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and began withdrawing some forces from its operations in Libya and Syria – that Moscow's foothold and influence in Syria could be replaced by Tehran and shift the power dynamics within the country.