The United States and Turkey Can’t Agree on Iraq and Syria
Ankara pursues its own goals and civilians are caught in the crossfire
by SAMUEL OAKFORD
There are a dozen nations that are officially part of the kinetic U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State — also referred to commonly by the acronym ISIL — in Iraq and Syria. Few are more important — and none potentially more challenging for the coalition itself — than Turkey.
A NATO member, Turkey shares a border with both Iraq and Syria and has deployed troops in both countries. Yet in neither case are Turkish soldiers part of coalition operations.
The coalition depends heavily on Incirlik air base in southern Turkey for its Syria actions. Yet in recent weeks, Turkey has gone so far as to call in Russian airstrikes during its fight for the key ISIL-occupied Syrian city of Al Bab — a startling development that Ankara blames on Washington’s refusal to help.
“Turkey remains the most ambivalent member of the U.S.-led Coalition — with almost all of its military actions viewed as unilateral by its purported allies,” Airwars, an independent monitoring group, observed in its December 2016 audit of the anti-ISIL alliance.
While Turkey has launched numerous air raids into both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers at the time observed that no more than 10 had actually been in direct support of coalition objectives.
Underlying all of Turkey’s cross-border actions are tensions between two disparate enemies. Ankara is determined to suppress a domestic Kurdish insurgency, while also reining back ascendant Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq.
At the same time, Turkey is now directly confronting the so-called Islamic State. When Turkey launched an invasion into northern Syria in August 2016, its troops pushed ISIL from a buffer zone along the border. But Turkey also targeted local Kurdish People’s Protection Units — aka YPG — fresh from their own coalition-backed victories against the terrorist group.
The Turkish government considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since the 1980s — often employing terror tactics. In 2013, the Turkish government reached a ceasefire with the rebels, though that deal eroded as the Syrian war progressed.
Ankara had to watch as Kurdish irregulars gained prominence and territory in northern Syria, which some said might form part of a future Kurdish state. In 2015, the ceasefire completely collapsed.
In addition to fighting the PKK and committing alleged human rights violations in Kurdish areas of Turkey, the Turkish government has bombed the group’s sites in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish regional government in that country is not itself allied to the PKK.
Complicating matters further, Ankara has insinuated itself into the fight to retake Mosul, basing its troops out of an old military camp near the city since 2015. At least 800 Turkish troops remain at Bashiqa in Iraq, against the wishes of the government in Baghdad.
Harkening back to the Ottoman period, when that area of northern Iraq was part of the former empire, Turkey’s Pres. Recep Erdogan insists that it is still a part of his own nation’s zone of influence. Turkish forces have shelled Mosul, reportedly killing civilians, while the U.S.-led coalition has suggested its presence is not sanctioned.
“It is the position of the U.S. and the coalition that anyone that is fighting terrorism in Iraq should be doing so in coordination with the government of Iraq,” Coalition spokesperson U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian told Airwars in November 2016.
The Turkish line — that “Iraqi sovereignty is very important to us” but that its own unwelcome military presence is “a result of need” as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in January 2017 — is contradictory. Yet it is a line the Turks have stood by, as they seek to assert themselves ahead of ISIL’s expected fall in northern Iraq.
The Turkish government wants to check Iranian-backed militias in the area, and, it claims, to protect local Turkmen communities with whom leaders in Ankara say they enjoy a kinship and ancestral bonds. From its occupied base at Bashiqa, Turkey has also trained both friendly Kurdish Peshmerga troops, and elements of local Sunni tribal militias who are opposed to ISIL.
“You called us to Bashiqa, and now you are telling us to leave,” Erdogan said in October 2016. “Excuse me, but I have kin there, I have Turkmen brothers there, Turkish brothers who ask us to come and help.”
“Excuse me, but I won’t leave.”
Bogged down at Al Bab
Advancing swiftly through northern Syria in the early days of its 2016 invasion — dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield — Turkey and its local Arab allies now risk becoming bogged down in a bitter struggle for Al Bab. In the key city, ISIL appears willing to fight to the death.
In the wake of heavy troop losses since December 2016, Turkey has loudly protested a lack of coalition air support for its operation to capture the city. This assertion is backed by the coalition’s own strike reports, which show no raids in the vicinity.
The United States prefers that the coalition keeps its Syria focus on ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa, where dozens of strikes have taken place in recent weeks. The coalition has also poured intense firepower into Mosul, stretching resources between the two fronts.
There has also been irritation in Washington as the Turks push hard against America’s favored — and mostly Kurdish — allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. Turkey’s defense minister in turn has threatened to cut off U.S. access to Incirlik airbase.
“U.S.-Turkish relations are not good; the U.S. primarily is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds and Turkish troops and the Turkish-allied rebels from fighting each other, rather than the Islamic State,” Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said. “Turkish strikes in Syria and Iraq are not coordinated with the Coalition beforehand.”
As the Al Bab campaign continued, Turkey reached a ceasefire deal in late December 2016, along with Iran and Russia, involving the Syrian government and certain rebel groups. Sensing an opening, Russia began cooperating with Turkey at Al Bab.
The tentative setup came just a year after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border — and just days after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara. Turkish defense officials have confirmed an arrangement with Russia.
“We have got the cooperation that we couldn’t get with the [U.S.-led anti-ISIL] coalition with Russia,” one military source told the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
Though remarkable for a member of NATO — particularly one so at odds with Moscow since the start of the Syrian war — one could still view the recent deal with Russia as being in line with Turkish self-interest. The arrangement could help defeat ISIL, while also preventing a de facto Kurdish state from emerging on the fringes of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Much also changed after the failed and bloody coup attempt which sought to overthrow Erdogan in July 2016. Since then, Turkish nationalism has been on the rise — and old certainties are under pressure.
“Turkey is officially part of the coalition, but really since the botched coup attempt of last July, and then the normalization with Russia, there has been so much anti-Americanism that’s been widespread in Turkey,” Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.
“There is hope in Ankara that things will improve — and they can’t be much worse than today with the Obama administration,” Ulgen continued. “Not only that [the administration] failed in Syria. but there is widespread belief that the U.S. had consciously moved to undermine Turkey’s position both domestically and in Syria by aligning itself with the Kurds, by arming the [YPG] and by extension the PKK.”
Ulgen estimates that Turkey could take Al Bab by the end of March 2017. The question then, is what comes next?
“If Turkey successfully captures Al Bab, will that be the end of the Turkish offensive in Syria?” he added. “Or, as some claim, will Turkish forces then be directed to Manbij?”
Kurds captured Manbij, to the west of the Euphrates River, after a bloody, coalition-backed fight in 2016. The SDF now controls the town.
A Turkish assault may represent a point of no return for the United States. Officials in Washington have thus far withstood the dissonance of nominally allying with the Turks and relying on their air bases, while actively and deeply supporting the YPG in Syria — the very force that the coalition plans to support in taking ISIL’s proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
Despite reports that the United States was increasing support for Turkish military operations, “there have been no changes to existing U.S. policy regarding support to the Turkish military in Al Bab and we are not conducting U.S. airstrikes in or near Al Bab,” U.S. Army Maj. Michael Meyer, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, told Airwars on Jan. 10, 2017.
However, on Jan. 17, 2017, the Pentagon confirmed that the first strikes in support of Turkish forces had in fact taken place.
“There have been four of these strikes so far,” Dorrian told reporters during a press conference. “And again, we do expect to continue doing these types of strikes in the days ahead.
What if any deal the U.S. and coalition officials made with Turkey to reach an agreement on air support remains unclear. The Obama administration will hand off the final decision of how to proceed with the Turkish government, in any event, to Pres. Donald Trump.
“The United States is kind of checked out — everyone is waiting for Trump, and I think that the major players like the Turks have in this sense essentially written off the Obama administration,” Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Airwars. “Putin and his people seemingly want to flip the Turks, and you have a certain amount of receptivity to that in Ankara.”
The risk of that occurring may have been furthered after Central Command’s official twitter account posted a statement issued by the SDF. The “SDF confirms that it has no affiliation or ties to PKK,” American officials added underneath.
“Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses?” Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s press secretary, tweeted back. “Do you believe anyone will buy this?
“The U.S. must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group.”
Civilians at risk
Any Turkish attack on Manbij would also be ominous for civilians living there. Hundreds already likely died in the U.S.-backed campaign to oust Islamic State from the city and its environs in 2016.
A fresh Turkish assault would inevitably lead to more casualties. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent organization monitoring reports of civilian deaths, estimates that Turkey and its allies have already killed at least 280 civilians — including 100 women and children — since they invaded northern Syria between Aug. 24, 2016 and Jan. 1, 2017.
On Dec. 9, 2016 — to take a recent example — local reports indicated that at least 13 civilians died in an airstrike on Al Bab. Citing an ISIL media affiliate, Al Jazeera said two families were among the dead and blamed multiple “Turkish airstrikes.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also blamed the Turkish military, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights blamed the coalition. While Airwars has classed the incident as “contested,” the coalition did not report strikes in the area on that date — and it appears most likely that Turkey was to blame on this occasion.
“The picture is often not clear, and you often don’t know with strikes — you have some sources saying it’s Turkey, some saying it’s Russia, some saying it’s the Syrian regime,” Kinda Haddad, chief Syria researcher at Airwars, who has tracked local reports on the country’s Aleppo governorate for two years, explained. “That said, there was clearly a very obvious spike in allegations of civilian casualties from Turkish strikes in the second half of last year.”
“As with the Russians and the Syrian government, they deny the civilian casualties.”
Yet without U.S. air support, the current Turkish attempt to take Al-Bab and possibly Manbij could be even bloodier for non-combatants. “Turkey will eventually take Al Bab with or without U.S. help, likely by shelling the city and otherwise causing heavy civilian casualties,” a recent study from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy assessed.
“Erdogan might then apply the same technique to Manbij if the SDF has not withdrawn by then, leaving Washington with the prospect of major civilian carnage, direct Turkish-Kurdish military confrontation and further interference by the Russians, who would likely insert themselves as arbiters between Ankara and the Kurds,” the assessment concluded.
Airwars reached out to both the Turkish mission to the United Nations and the country’s embassy in Washington for comment on this article. As of publication, neither had responded.
With Trump’s forthcoming inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, U.S. policy remains very much in flux. The recent Obama approach — going after ISIL, while dodging tough decisions about whether Kurdish ground proxies or NATO ally Turkey are more important to U.S. interests — may not endure.
The potential for new, explosive violence and needless civilian casualties in both Iraq and Syria remains a serious threat.