ISTANBUL: President Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to launch military operations soon to expand safe zones already set up across Turkey’s southern borders has raised the stakes in his row with NATO partners over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.
Analysts said Erdogan’s surprise announcement on Monday reflected his belief that the West would not oppose such operations at a time when it needs Ankara’s support for the Nordic countries’ bid to join NATO.
Turkey accuses Sweden and Finland of harbouring people linked to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). All 30 NATO countries must agree the Nordic states’ application to join. The United States said on Tuesday it was confident that Sweden and Finland could overcome Turkey’s concerns.
Analysts said Erdogan’s announcement was also aimed at bolstering Turkish nationalist support for his two-decade rule as he gears up for difficult elections next year. Cross-border military operations have boosted his poll ratings in the past.
Turkey has conducted three incursions into northern Syria since 2016, seizing hundreds of kilometres of land and pushing some 30 km (20 miles) deep into the country, in operations targeting mainly the US-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.
It has also stepped up military operations against PKK militants in northern Iraq in recent years.
Turkey views both groups as a single terrorist entity. Its NATO allies only view the PKK as a terrorist group, not the YPG.
Asli Aydintasbas, Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Erdogan’s move was about testing Turkey’s NATO allies.
“President Erdogan’s style of meeting international challenges is upping the ante – and it almost always works in causing NATO allies to blink,” she said.
“It worked in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria in the past – why not try again.”
Erdogan said operations to combat threats from across the border would start once Turkey’s armed forces and intelligence had completed their preparations, with decisions set to be made at a National Security Council meeting on Thursday.
The YPG, or People’s Defence Units, are a key element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led coalition which the United States has largely relied on to fight Islamic State militants since 2014.