Turkey Threatens U.S. Allies in Syria
2,000 Americans stand between Turkish and Kurdish forces
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again threatened to launch further cross-border military operations targeting the United States’ Syrian Kurdish-led allies in the country’s northeast.
“God willing, very soon … we will leave the terror nests east of the Euphrates in disarray,” Erdogan declared on Oct. 12, 2018, referring to the Kurdish-majority region east of the iconic river.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces controls all territory from the east bank of the Euphrates all the way to the Iraqi border, approximately two-thirds of Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Overall, the Kurdish-led forces control about one-third of the country.
There are no fewer than 2,000 U.S. troops in that region, and they likely will remain there for the foreseeable future. Their initial objective, the defeat of Islamic State, is nearly complete. The SDF, with the support of U.S. and French ground forces, is on the offensive against Islamic State in the group’s last few strongholds in the country’s eastern Deir Ez Zor province.
This long-term American troop presence is an effective deterrent against both the Syrian regime, which wants to reassert its control over that part of the country, and Turkey, which seeks to confront the Syrian Kurds.
“After Idlib our target is east of the Euphrates,” Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Moualem said on Oct. 14, 2018, echoing the threat Erdogan made a mere two days earlier.
The leading party in the Syrian Kurdish areas is essentially the Syrian branch of Ankara’s mortal enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Its armed wing the People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG, established the SDF, an Arab-Kurdish fighting-force, in October 2015 and remains the primary and most powerful group within the alliance.
Russia and Iran also oppose the continued American presence, invariably insisting that the only states that have the right to deploy forces in Syria are those invited by the regime, as they are. The American, French and Turkish forces presently in Syria do not have Damascus’s approval.
In September 2018 Al Moallem declared at the United Nations that his regime considers the presence of these latter three countries as “occupying forces” which he claimed “will be dealt with accordingly.”
“The Astana troika — Russia, Turkey and Iran — have been driven further together by Washington’s determination to consolidate its position in north Syria,” Prof. Joshua Landis, the head of the Middle East Studies department in the University of Oklahoma and a noted Syria expert, told War Is Boring.
“[U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and his new Syria team, led by Amb. James Jeffrey, have defined a fairly clear program for U.S. policy, which will ensconce U.S. Special Forces in northern Syria for years to come,” Landis explained. “They have made the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria contingent of the withdrawal of Iran from Syria, which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.”
Turkey “has more reason to be upset with the United States today because of its unwavering support for the YPG,” Landis said.
“Ankara has been making anti-YPG statements for a long time now,” he elaborated. “It cannot fail to increase pressure on the US to withdraw from Syria. Ankara has long seen action in the Tal Abyad area as its first option, which is a vulnerable region because it has been heavily populated by Arabs.”
At top — YPG fighters in northern Syria. Photo via Wikipedia. Above — U.S. Army 3rd Cavalry Regiment troopers conduct a Javelin anti-tank missile live fire while deployed to Iraq, Oct. 4, 2018. Army photo by 2nd Lt. Jamie Douglas
The YPG captured Tal Abyad – which the Kurds call “Gire Spi” – from Islamic State in the summer of 2015. The Arab-majority region sits right on the Turkish border between the two primary Syrian Kurdish regions Kobane and Jazira. Tal Abyad is likely the primary target of the Turkish military in the event Erdogan makes good on his threat to extend his anti-YPG campaign east of the Euphrates.
Shortly before Erdogan made these latest threats, he sought parliamentary approval for further cross-border operations into Syria, indicating he is serious about potentially pursuing this course of action in the foreseeable future.
Doing so could, however, run the dire risk of clashing with, or even killing, American troops in that region. The Untted States previously raised American flags in Tal Abyad that were clearly visible from the Turkish side of the border, a clear warning to Ankara against attacking the city.
In March 2017, U.S. troops in armored vehicles, prominently flying the stars and stripes, drove into the city of Manbij, on the west bank of the Euphrates, to deter an attack by Turkish-backed rebels on the city. These troops are still there to prevent any potential Turkish-YPG confrontation in that region.
Ankara already demonstrated a reckless disregard over the U.S. presence in Syria. On April 25, 2017, the Turkish military bombed a YPG headquarters in northeast Syria without giving nearby U.S. troops any adequate forewarning. To make matters worse Ankara even hinted shortly thereafter that U.S. troops embedded with YPG run the risk of coming under Turkish fire or even killed in future attacks.
The only incident where the United States did not try to deter a Turkish attack on the YPG was in Afrin, the small and isolated northwestern Syrian Kurdish exclave, earlier this year. This is primarily because it never worked with the YPG units in that area nor did it ever have any military forces in that part of Syria. It’s not likely America would acquiesce in a similar fashion to any Turkish attack on the northeast.
The United States previously promised Turkey that Manbij would not remain under YPG control after it supported the group’s capture of the Arab-majority city back in the summer of 2016. Ankara argues that Washington did not live up to this promise. After a series of negotiations, both sides reached a roadmap agreement in June 2018 and began separate coordinated independent troop patrols near the city.
In October 2018 Erdogan claimed the YPG remains in Manbij, which Turkish troops are not yet permitted by the Americans to enter, and vowed Turkey “will do what is necessary” to remove it.
However, the Turkish president has also clarified that while the roadmap agreement remains delayed it’s also “not completely dead.” The Americans, he added, “say they will take concrete steps” to fully implement it.
Despite Erdogan’s threatening rhetoric, the U.S. and Turkish troops are training together in preparation for the beginning of combined patrols.
While this could substantially reduce, if not do away with altogether, the risk of the two sides clashing in Manbij it’s unclear if the United States can, in the long term, deter or dissuade Erdogan from carrying out his threat of waging war on the YPG in the Syrian Kurdish heartland.