“We will start an operation to free the east of the Euphrates from the separatist terrorist organization in the next few days,” Erdogan said during a speech in Ankara on Wednesday, referring to territory held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), considered by Turkey a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for an autonomous region inside Turkey since 1984.
Turkey has been infuriated by US support for the YPG, which forms the backbone of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an anti-Damascus alliance of predominantly Kurdish militants.
Ankara has repeatedly criticized Washington for providing military support to the YPG and threatened to attack areas held by the militant group.
“The target is never American soldiers but terrorist organization members active in the region,” Erdogan told the audience at a defense industry summit.
Erdogan’s remarks came a day after the US military said it had established “observation posts” in northern Syria with the purported aim of preventing clashes between Turkish forces and US-backed Kurdish militants, despite Ankara’s strong opposition to the plan.
“At the direction of Secretary (James) Mattis, the US established observation posts in the northeast Syria border region to address the security concerns of our NATO ally Turkey,” Department of Defense spokesman Rob Manning said in a press release on Tuesday.
In reaction to the move, Erdogan said that Turkey was not being protected from terrorists but “terrorists were being protected” from possible action by Ankara.
Ankara has already launched two operations in northern Syria. The first offensive dubbed “Euphrates Shield” began in August 2016 to stop the advance of Kurdish militia forces.
Then in January 2018, Turkish military forces launched another cross-border military operation inside Syria, code-named “Operation Olive Branch,” with the declared aim of eliminating YPG militants from northern Syria, particularly the Afrin region.
In March, the operation was completed with the capture of Afrin city, with Turkey threatening to take the battle to nearby Manbij, west of the Euphrates.
The NATO allies agreed a roadmap for Manbij in June, which would see the city cleared of US-backed Kurdish militants.
Erdogan, however, said Turkey had not got the result it wanted in Manbij, adding, “There has been a delaying tactic undeniably used in Manbij, and right now it is still being used.”
He also added that the threat from Daesh no longer existed in Syria, implicitly questioning the US deployment of heavy weapons in Syria despite the defeat of the terror group in much of the Arab country.