Will Turkey attack the Syrian Kurds without a nod from Russia and Iran?

Turkey has renewed its threats of a new military offensive against the Syrian Kurds, but what can it do after failing to secure the green light for Russia and Iran?

After announcing plans to move against Kurdish forces in the Manbij and Tal Rifaat regions of northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined a trilateral summit in Tehran this week in search of support.

While Iran and Russia, the other two major foreign players in the Syrian conflict, have curbed it, analysts say, Turkey insisted on Thursday it doesn’t need anyone’s “permission” for a new campaign in Syria.

Here’s a look at what could be next.

Erdogan got the green light?

In Tehran, Erdogan renewed his threats to Kurdish forces that control northeast Syria and are considered “terrorists” by Ankara.

The summit adopted a statement of cooperation to “eliminate individuals and terrorist groups” in northern Syria and counter any separatist ambitions.

The three main foreign intermediaries who have long supported the opposing sides in the war in Syria have allegedly failed to specify who is considered a “terrorist”.

Moscow and Washington have repeatedly warned NATO member Turkey of a new attack on the Kurds in northern Syria and Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Erdogan that the offensive would be “disastrous.”

“The summit did not give (Erdogan) a green light, but Turkey has repeatedly launched military operations in Syria without a green light,” said Darin Khalifa, researcher at the International Crisis Group.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Turkey “never asked and we never sought permission” for its campaigns in Syria.

“It could happen one night, all of a sudden,” he said of a new military offensive, without specifying the scale of such an operation.

Between 2016 and 2019, Ankara launched three military offensives that it said were aimed at rooting out the Kurdish YPG, which is the main component of the de facto army of the autonomous Kurds, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been leading the insurgency in Turkey for decades.

Erdogan has threatened to attack Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, which are part of a 30-kilometer (20-mile) buffer zone he wants to establish along the border.

Bassam Abu Abdullah of Damascus University’s Center for Strategic Studies said he thought a Turkish attack was unlikely.

“I think the Turkish military operation’s fuse… has been completely removed,” he told AFP.

What options does Turkey have?

But even without the approval of Moscow and Tehran, Erdogan can still launch a limited attack.

Turkish media reported that no operations would be carried out until the end of August or beginning of September.

“Now Turkey has one option – to use aircraft to strike Kurdish targets throughout Syria. Erdogan has this green light,” said Nicholas Geras of the New Lines Institute.

Kurdish officials have said they are preparing for a possible Turkish attack.

“Erdogan desperately needs permission to violate Syrian airspace to carry out his aggression,” SDF spokesman Farhad Shami said.

Turkey, which has been conducting cross-border operations against the PKK in neighboring Iraq for years, killed nine civilians in an artillery attack on Wednesday.

Khalifa warned that an attack on densely populated Manbij would have “serious humanitarian consequences”.

“The resumption of conflict will inevitably lead to mass displacement and suffering,” she said.

Hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Kurds displaced by the 2018 Turkish offensive into the neighboring region of Afrin live in the Tal Rifaat region.

Manbij is also an Arab-majority city with Kurdish settlers living in and around it.

Is Turkey bringing the Kurds closer to Damascus?

The Syrian army has placed reinforcements in areas threatened by Turkey, especially in the Manbij area, to act as a buffer between Kurdish and Ankara-backed forces.

Abu Abdullah of Damascus University expects more deployment of the Syrian army in the area.

Damascus ally Moscow “will actively push in this direction,” he said, adding that Ankara “would not be bothered at all, they insist on deploying the Syrian army” on the border to avoid military escalation.

“Any military operation will complicate the situation for everyone,” he said. “The SDF has no other choice but to reach an understanding with the Syrian state.”

Kurdish forces and the Syrian regime have struggled to reach an agreement because the Kurds do not want to give up territorial gains and Damascus rejects their self-rule.

Khalifa said she was skeptical that the two would see eye to eye.

“The Turkish attack could potentially lead to additional defensive arrangements between the SDF and Damascus, but this may not lead to a broader agreement or settlement,” she said.

“At least it hasn’t happened in the past.”