By Selcan Hacaoglu
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday signaled that a Turkish military operation against Kurdish forces in the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin could be imminent, as he traveled to Russia to discuss the Syrian conflict with Vladimir Putin.
U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters are reported to have returned to Afrin after defeating Islamic State militants in their stronghold of Raqqa last month. Ankara considers them a terrorist force with links to the PKK, which has long battled for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast. Turkish control of Afrin would prevent the Kurds from linking enclaves they hold.
Turkey will take the steps necessary to protect itself, Erdogan said after unscheduled meetings with the army chief, prime minister and foreign minister over the weekend.
“We’ve discussed joint steps with Russia,” he said at Istanbul’s airport before traveling to Sochi. “Their positive stance gives an opportunity to implement our plan at any moment.”
Turkey, whose troops are already positioned to the south of Afrin as part of the country’s joint mission with Russia to monitor a cease-fire agreement in Idlib province, says the Kurds can now field modern weaponry, including rocket launchers, supplied by the U.S. in the fight against the jihadists.
Another flashpoint between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds lies to the east in Manbij.
Erdogan said Kurdish forces continued to occupy the town, despite repeated Turkish requests to the U.S. that they should be transferred across the Euphrates river.