Turkey’s attack on Syria’s Kurds – America’s allies in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) – has placed Washington in the middle of escalating tensions that threaten to weaken the US position in Syria.
The military strike could divert the Kurds away from containing ISIS and allow the militant Muslim organization to regroup after a series of defeats, while also risking US relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally.
Washington has been restrained in criticizing the Turkish assault in northern Syria that began, at the weekend (under the Orwellian name of ‘Operation Olive Branch’), by targeting the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin.
Ankara views the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish group. as a threat, since it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a movement that is fighting for a separate state within Turkey.
According to Pentagon estimates, the YPG contributes 27,000 troops to the 50,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are supported by the US in fighting the Syrian government as well as ISIS. The YPG and its SDF Arab allies control a large part of northern Syria, a quarter of the country’s total territory, along the Turkish border.
The US response was measured. Commenting on the Turkish incursion into Syria, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said: “Turkey has legitimate security concerns.” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US was “asking both sides to show restraint.”
However Richard Haass, president of the New York-headquartered think tank The Council on Foreign Relations, said the US “is wringing its hands” on how to respond to the Turkish incursion into Syria.
The Turkish action is viewed by some as contributing to a growing rift between Washington and Ankara. “Turkey is falling into a Russian trap to peel Turkey away from the US and NATO. I’m not sure that the US sees it that way,” said Kemal Kirişci, head of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, adding that “Turkey is becoming dominated by a Eurasian faction that favors closer ties with Russia.”
Analysts agree that the US is finding it difficult to maintain a secure footing in Syria, whose civil war has produced a complexity of overlapping national and religious interests and great power interventions somewhat reminiscent of the Thirty Years’ War in 17th century Europe.
Russia and Iran support the government of President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey, which initially supported the Syrian rebels, now appears to be playing both sides in an attempt to increase its influence in the region, including seeking Russian support for its attack on the Kurds.
The core dilemma for the US appears to be whether it abandons its support for Syria’s Kurds as the war against ISIS winds down, or risks a deterioration in relations with Turkey.
Ankara objects to the fact that the US is helping the Kurds to create a 30,000-man border security force in northern Syria that it fears could serve as a staging area for a renewed Kurdish insurgency against Turkey.
The border security force was opposed by the US State Department, which lost out in a bureaucratic struggle with the Pentagon. “This is the brainchild of CENTCOM [the US Central Command that covers the Middle East], which is fixated on ISIS and wields great influence in the Pentagon,” said one analyst. “If EUCOM [European Command] had still been in charge, it would have opposed it because it would know it would damage ties with Turkey.”
Mattis, a former CENTCOM commander, defended the concept this week. He said that the SDF can be turned into a stabilization force as territory is recovered from ISIS and run by local authorities. He added that local security forces would be trained in international policing standards and equipped with rifles and machine guns.
He also indicated that the Kurdish element in this security force would be diluted, since the area being freed from ISIS is heavily Sunni Arab, “so you’re going to see a lot of Sunni Arabs obviously in the police force.”
An enclave in northern Syria controlled by a predominately Sunni Arab security force would appease Turkey since it has championed the country’s majority Sunni Arab population in its rebellion against the Shia-backed Assad regime. It would also meet US objectives, since Washington has labeled the PKK a terrorist organization.
“The YPG and the PKK are the same guys,” he said. “The YPG is the only armed element in the region, having eliminated Kurdish and other political opposition”
Whether the YPG would give up control of territory it has held since 2012 (and turned into a de facto autonomous Kurdish region) is another matter. It might try to win favor with both Washington and Turkey by agreeing not to support the PKK’s struggle in Turkey and instead focus on operating an area of self-rule in Syria. Both the US and Turkey might support an autonomous YPG enclave as long as it is not affiliated with the PKK.
The YPG has been losing support from Syria’s Kurdish merchant and professional middle classes, as its political control is felt to be harming business interests. Jettisoning the ideological influence of PKK might help the YPG regain local support, according to the International Crisis Group, an NGO.
But Kirişci was highly skeptical that such a development would happen. “The YPG and the PKK are the same guys,” he said. “The YPG is the only armed element in the region, having eliminated Kurdish and other political opposition.”
An alternative strategy for the YPG would be to shift support to the Assad regime in order to survive under a Russian-brokered deal that would ensure some form of autonomy for the Kurds. This would likely be looked at less favorably by both the US and Turkey. Despite a suggestion by President Donald Trump two months ago that the US might end military supplies to the YPG, the US is continuing to provide arms and advisors, although Mattis said “we are reducing” American forces as ISIS loses ground.
US officials are emphasizing that Washington is maintaining close high level military and diplomatic contacts with Turkey, including being given advanced warning by Ankara about its air strikes against the Kurds at the weekend.
Washington also appears to be addressing Ankara’s concerns that US assistance to the YPG might present a direct military threat to Turkey by monitoring the quality and quantity of weapons and ammunition provided to YPG forces to guard against them ending up in the hands of the PKK across the border in Turkey.
“We’re keenly aware of where our ammunition is being used and that sort of thing, so we don’t lose control of it,” said Mattis, although others have expressed doubts whether this is feasible in such a fluid and
chaotic conflict environment.