April 26, 2017

Turkey and the fight against ISIS - whose side are you on?

Blue=Turkish forces / Yellow=Kurdish (YPG) forces

In an unnecessary and unhelpful turn of events, a series of armed confrontations has broken out in several locations along the Syrian-Turkish border. The combatants, unfortunately, are both U.S. allies.

Turkish forces have mounted a series of artillery attacks and air strikes on a variety of Kurdish targets along virtually the entire Syrian-Turkish border, claiming that they are attacking members of the outlawed and designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers' Party, known more commonly by its Kurdish initials PKK.

The problem - most of the targets are not PKK targets, they are actually elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, more commonly called the YPG. The YPG is an integral part of a U.S.-backed force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was created, trained and equipped to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They are the "boots on the ground" support by coalition air power, artillery, special forces, and logistics.

The Turks are acting like petulant children, unfortunately, petulant children with artillery and F-16 fighter bombers.

For those who do not follow events in Syria and the inherent animosity between the Turks and the Kurds, a brief (and by no means comprehensive) overview of the situation in northern Syria.

It has taken the Turks years to actually commit to the fight against ISIS. It delayed the U.S.-led coalition access to Incirlik air base, located near the city of Adana just north of the Syrian border until late 2015, although the air campaign against ISIS began a year earlier.

In August 2016, the Turks supported a Free Syrian Army (FSA) assault into ISIS-held territory along the Turkish border in an operation called Euphrates Shield. The FSA was supported by Turkish air, armor, artillery and special forces, and was moderately successful, eventually seizing the key ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. The next target was the city of Manbij, in the Syrian Kurdish enclave.

The FSA move towards Manbij revealed the actual reason for the Turkish-supported - some would say Turkish-directed - intervention. Although nominally an attack on ISIS, the Turkish objective was to ensure that the Syrian Kurds were not able to form an autonomous region similar to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq. The Kurds have already declared such an area, calling it Rojava.

The United States determined that time was of the essence in the effort to mount an attack on al-Raqqah. The choices were to wait until the Turks and FSA were able to fight the 100 miles to al-Raqqah, an effort that would take months, or support an SDF assault on al-Raqqah. SDF units were virtually at the outskirts of the city.

To head off a fight between the Turkish-backed FSA and the U.S.-backed Kurds, the Kurds made contact with the Syrian regime and allowed Syrian (with Russians) to occupy the Manbij area. This move isolated the Turks into a pocket, stopping their eventual march on the ISIS-declared capital city of al-Raqqah. See my earlier articles on these events: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?, and Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

The Turks have always insisted that they be involved in the liberation of a-Raqqah, claiming that their FSA force, comprised of Syrian Arabs, would be more welcome in the city. They further claimed that the people of al-Raqqah would not want to be liberated by the Kurds, claiming that would be trading "one terrorist occupation force for another." Given my reading of what little information leaks out of al-Raqqah, I assess that the people don't care - they just want to be rid of the ISIS yoke.

Just days ago, as it appeared that the SDF was on the verge of reaching the city in force and preparing to mount an assault, the Turks conducted airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. While the attacks in Iraq appeared to strike legitimate PKK targets, the follow-on artillery strikes along the border in multiple cities inside Syria were undoubtedly attacks on SDF units and facilities.

Here is an exchange on Twitter I had this morning with an excellent Turkish analyst - I respect his views, we just happen to disagree on this particular issue.

It appears to me the Turks are throwing a tantrum. If they are not to be involved in the attack on al-Raqqah, they are going to employ military force to interfere with the execution of the U.S.-backed SDF attack. It may work, and it may not.

Now we have the Turks fighting the one viable military force that is in position with the requisite firepower and coalition air support to mount an attack on a key ISIS target in Syria. They believe that a multi-faceted attack on the SDF under the guise of fighting the PKK will tie up valuable SDF resources as the YPG is forced to defend itself.

Who benefits from Turkish petulance? ISIS, and no one else.

Again - if Turkey wants to be a NATO ally, it needs to act like one. Sabotaging another NATO ally's military efforts hardly qualifies.