Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past week launched a series of airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, and has warned that a ground operation will soon follow.
The aerial operation that began on Sunday and his warnings three days later come after an explosion rocked Istanbul a week ago, killing at least six people and injuring more than 80 others. Turkish officials blamed Kurdish separatists for the explosion, a claim denied by Kurdish groups.
Erdogan said the strikes were “just the beginning” and that the Turkish Armed Forces “will topple the terrorists by land at the most convenient time.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the defense ministry claimed that 471 targets had been hit and that “254 terrorists have been neutralized” since the start of the assault, which has been dubbed “Operation Claw-Sword.” CNN can’t independently verify the number of casualties.
But Erdogan has been pledging an incursion into northern Syria since May. He had previously said that an invasion was meant to create a 30-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” that would be emptied of fighters allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that Turkey and the US deem a terrorist organization.
Analysts have said that Erdogan had stopped short of acting on his vow to invade because he hadn’t secured a green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has a large military presence in Syria.
But on Wednesday, senior Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev said that Moscow has tried to convince Turkey to “refrain from conducting full-scale ground operations.”
The northern Syrian area targeted by Erdogan includes the three key towns of Manbij, Tel Rifaat and Kobani, which are under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF, backed by Washington, had been instrumental in the fight against ISIS since 2014. But its backbone is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Turkey considers a wing of the PKK and seeks to eliminate.
CNN asked Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, how likely the Turkish leader is to follow through with his pledge this time.
Turkey has been saying that it will begin its next incursion for months. Are today’s claims any different or more serious?
I think that taking into consideration the previous Turkish incursions into northern Syria, this time, something doesn’t seem to be moving forward as fast. Typically, Turkish incursions follow one or two days of cross-border shelling by artillery and drone strikes, and then the military moves in. This time, the cross-border artillery shelling and drone strikes have been going on almost for…