Prime Minister Davutoğlu expressed the Turkish government’s unease earlier this week after the YPG seized control over the Menag air base on February 11th following a struggle against the al-Nusra front for control over the base which continued for several days.
The strategic air-base, with access to the highway stretching from Aleppo all the way to the Turkish-Syrian border, had been under the control of the al-Nusra Front since 2013. Following the seizure of the airbase by the YPG, Davutoğlu clearly indicated that “If the YPG threatens our security we will do what is necessary, and strike.”
The YPG is the armed forces of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is the Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) based in southeast Turkey. The Turkish government has been engaged in military operations against the PKK in Turkey’s southeast for several months, including the enforcement of month-long curfews aimed at dismantling PKK strongholds in the country’s south-eastern cities.
The role of the PYD and YPG in the Syrian conflict has been a point of tension between Turkey and its allies, especially the United States. Diplomatic relations were already strained last week after Department of State spokesperson John Kirby stated that the U.S. did not view the YPG as a terrorist organization; “The YPG is one of the most effective forces combating ISIS. We do not see them as a terrorist organization and will continue to support them.”
On Saturday February 13, the day that the shelling operations began, Davutoğlu revealed that “A situation has arisen that calls for the rules of engagement. In accordance with the rules of engagement, we have responded to the threat posed by the forces in the Azaz region. The YPG must immediately remove itself from the Azaz area.”
The shelling of YPG targets continued throughout the weekend, and on Monday February 15 the Turkish Secretary of Defense İsmet Yılmaz indicated that “Shelling will continue against the PKK and PYD held Menag airbase and the surrounding areas of Azaz until the PYD removes itself from the region.”
The shelling operations were met by strong opposition by the United States, with State Department spokesperson John Kirby, and later Vice President Joe Biden calling on Turkey to immediately halt its operations against the Kurdish held regions in Northern Syria. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement on Sunday condemning the shelling operations and called on Turkey to halt its operations.
However, the Turkish government has stood behind its operations, and in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Davutoğlu expressed that the Turkish armed forces actions represented an appropriate response to the threat posed in the area. The Prime Minister further cautioned that the developing situation “may trigger another wave of refugees,” which he noted would not only affect Turkey but also the European Union.
The Prime Minister’s comments come during an already tense moment between Turkey and the EU concerning the Syrian refugee crisis. Recently leaked documents from the G20 summit revealed that Turkish President Erdoğan had threatened to loosen Turkey’s borders with Europe if a 3 billion euro deal was not reached between the Turkey and the EU.
The prospect of expanded Turkish intervention in the Syrian conflict has also increased tensions between Turkey and Russia. Russia has been especially uneasy with the growing partnership between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, after Saudi Arabia declared that it was willing to begin sending ground troops into Syria as a part of the coalition to fight ISIS.
Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Çavuşoğlu indicated that Turkey would support the deployment of Saudi ground forces in Syria. Additionally, Saudi warplanes were reportedly sent to the U.S. held İncirlik airbase in the Turkish city of Adana on Saturday February 13.
After Saudi Arabia revealed its intent to send ground troops into Syria, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev cautioned that this move could end up resulting in a world war. Speaking in an interview with the German newspaper Handelsbaltt, Medvedev stated that “a ground operation draws everyone taking part in it into a war. The Americans and our Arab partners must consider whether or not they want a permanent war.”
On Sunday, February 14, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement claiming that an armed group of around 100 ground forces had entered Syrian territory from Turkey. However, Turkish Secretary of Defense İsmet Yılmaz denied the allegations, claiming that Turkey did not have any plans to send ground forces into Syria at this point.