Operation Euphrates Shield: Erdogan's armour is blunting U.S ally's gains in northern Syria

(Video via Reuters. Image via EPA)

The Turkish government's involvement in Syria has deepened after the advance of armour into the north of the country. ISIS militants, who have been situated in Jerablus for many months, served as the pretext for President Erdogan's ground operations in northern Syria. Jerablus situated forty kilometres from Kobane fell swiftly and Turkish forces, supported by artillery, air support, and tanks, have since advanced on Manbij to clear surrounding towns and villages of the YPG (People's Protection Units) and its affiliated allies the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish military actions appears to be aimed at stopping cross-border attacks from a mixture of rebel fighters by establishing a 55-by-25 mile "safe zone" for refugees in response to the suicide bombing which killed 54 civilians including 29 children in Gaziantep (August 20th, 2016). 

At first glance, these objectives suit American interests. A secure Turkish-Syrian border would limit the ability of organisations such as Al-Qa'ida, Jabhat al-Nusra Front, ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham to launch attacks in Turkey and funnel fighters into Europe alongside fleeing refugees. The latter concern was emphasised by the White House following the Paris attacks, a senior official of the Obama administration stating “The game has changed. Enough is enough. The border needs to be sealed....This is an international threat, and it’s coming out of Syria and it is coming through Turkish territory.”

According to the Wall Street Journal (November 29th, 2015), 'Pentagon officials estimated that it could take as many as 30,000 soldiers to seal the border on the Turkish side for a broader humanitarian mission.' However is estimated that '1000 Syrian Arab rebels are working with 380 soldiers and 40 tanks' in Turkey's army are currently in Syria. While exact figures are difficult to predict in the turmoil, these statistics are enough to suggest they do not match the expectations of the Pentagon to secure the porous border or cut off ISIS's major military and economic trade routes.

The escalation of ISIS's bombing campaign in Turkey including a series of devastating attacks in Ankara and Istanbul, the PKK insurgency in eastern Turkey and the dramatic failure of the military coup in July against Erdogan also emphasise that the government is unable or unwilling to fulfil the Obama administration's concerns . Equally, as Robert Fisk argues, framing Operation Euphrates Shield as a humanitarian and counter-terrorist operation falls through relatively quickly, particularly when ISIS militants who were driven from Jerablus had been contained there for many months. 

According to a Turkish official, Operation Euphrates Shield was planned two years in advance, a move which was delayed by the military coup and tensions with Russia and Syria. Supported by U.S airpower the YPG played a key role in the siege of Kobane and made spectacular gains against ISIS in the Al-Hasakah and Tell Abyad offensives (April - August 2015). However its extension into the Aleppo governate has made the Turkish government uncomfortable. As Cockburn writes  so long as this Kurdish quasi-state exists, the Turkish state is endangered. The invasion of Syria, Turkish authorities will argue, prevents the YPG in north-east Syria from attempting to link up with the YPG's political wing (The Democratic Union Party), officials and groups in north-west Syria and unify along the Turkey southern border.

Turkish concerns in many respects are not without reason and open up more questions over the conduct of U.S allies in the war. The YPG are an effective military unit, however it is radical in nature as a movement. The group have utilised tactical suicide bombings, recruited child soldiers, conducted arbitrary arrests, abused prisoners in detention, and its policies have resulted in disappearances and killings.

The accusations by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that the YPG carried out ethnic cleansing operations of Sunni Arab and Turkmen districts are not inaccurate. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have demonstrated militant Kurdish groups have conducted such operations in northern Syria and Iraq through targeted displacement, housing demolitions and refusing to allow Arab families to return to their homes. These actions, which amount to war crimes under international law, have been utilised by Turkish authorities as an excuse to curb YPG gains in Syria and place the United States in an uncomfortable position militarily and politically. As Ufuk Ultas stated in 2015: 

"An...alarming aspect of the YPG for the United States should be its radical ideology...Despite PR-friendly statements by the YPG leadership, the situation on the ground is disturbingly worrying. The YPG is a Marxist organisation with strong totalitarian and intolerant tendencies and policies. Their belated nationalism has clashed with the non-Kurdish residents; but even the Kurds who do not share the YPG/PKK ideology could not escape from the repression."

There was always a considerable risk in supporting separatists and ethno-nationalist militant groups such as the YPG. U.S - Turkish relations have become strained since the Syrian War and the rise of ISIS. Such an example was Turkish officials being outraged by pictures which were published of U.S Special Forces fighting alongside Kurdish forces who appeared to be wearing the YPG's insignia on their uniform. These insignias were removed under the order of U.S military officials, however even this small episode has highlighted the tensions in the war against ISIS and the Turkish government's disapproval of U.S policy which supports radical Kurdish groups such the YPG.  

However since the failed military coup, these relations have considerably worsened with many Turkish officials citing Washington and other Western allies (most notably the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) of being behind the attempt to oust Erdogan. The redevelopment of relations between Turkey and Russia since the military coup, which deteriorated sharply following the controversial downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber in November 2015, have been a cause for alarm as Turkey has usually operated as a key pillar and pivot for American policy towards the Middle East. 

Operation Euphrates Shield's targeting of U.S allies in Syria is a snub towards Washington's plans in Syria. Driving the YPG and SDF east of the Euphrates will blunt the former's ambition to carve out more territory for a new proto-state in northern Syria, a scenario which has the potential to threaten the integrity of eastern Turkey. At the same time military action pushes the YPG into impoverished and sparsely populated parts of Syria, made ever more insecure by the presence of ISIS who will look to consolidate its territory in the neighbouring al-Raqqah provinces.

Syrian civilians in Raqqa, including activists from Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently, described the YPG as the "Yellow ISIS". These comments deserve scrutiny as refugees and civilians caught between the warring militias do not seem to distinguish between the organisations' in their capacity for extremism regardless of their differing ideologies. ISIS will utilise this fear of the YPG, the anger against the U.S-coalitions aerial bombing campaign and its hearts and minds campaign to maintain control of Raqqa and the group will not hesitate to attack Kurdish positions, the most memorable of which was the battle of Kobane and subsequent suicide attacks in the town once the YPG and U.S coalition broke the siege.

29th November, 2015

29th November, 2015

The Turkish government will attempt to contain the YPG's aspirations at the Euphrates River. Meanwhile the Syrian government conducted it first bombing of Kurdish-held areas in the northeastern city of al-Hasakah in August 2016. These bombardments which killed 22 civilians were followed by a ground offensive by Assad's forces supported by Iranian and Afghan foreign fighters and Shiite militias in al-Hasakah against the YPG. Numerous state actors, through proxies or direct military action, want to dent Kurdish military advances.

The ingredients are there for an alarming escalation of the Syrian War's violence and the PKK insurgency in Turkey. Turkish military strikes in Sarasset, Amareh and Jab al-Kousa targeting YPG and SDF fighters have already killed and maimed dozens of innocent men, women and children. The manoeuvres by Turkey are risky. Limited operations in the Middle East have historically become quagmires whether it be regional powers or global powers conducting them as demonstrated by Egypt in Yemen during the 1960s, Israel in Lebanon during the 1980s and the United States in Iraq in the 2000s. U.S - Russian cooperation will be key to limiting Turkish operations to the Jerabulus-Manbij corridor and will be critical to preventing an escalation of the regional war while sparing the blushes of the United States and its volatile Kurdish allies. A confrontation between two key allies in the region would be a damaging blow to the United States' Syrian policy and place it in an awkward position where American sponsors, armed, trained by and fighting alongside U.S Special Forces are fighting Turkey who are a member of their own alliance NATO. All these factors will strengthen the position of Bashar al-Assad's government and ISIS while undermining a contradictory Syrian policy.

The Turkish Air Force's multiple bombing raids across northern Syria and Iraq for several years, its covert support for ISIS and other extremist groups against the Assad regime and deterioration in security across the Turkish state highlight the country's escalating involvement in the war. These actions have not come without costs to Turkey already. Hundreds (if not thousands) of civilians, soldiers and security personnel been killed or wounded by suicide bombs, military coup, repression, and rebellion since the beginning of the country's involvement in Syria in 2011. An all-out war with Kurdish militants across the board and creating a new front in a multi-layered conflict would steepen this cost considerably, weaken its ties with Washington and plunge the Arab world deeper into a brutal regional war. 

 Matthew Williams