January 6, 2017

Turkish threat to limit access to Incirlik Air Base - a collision course?

A U.S. Air Force F-16 takes off from Incirlik Air Base

As I have warned in the past, the United States and Turkey are on a collision course over events in northern Syria. The tensions revolve around the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), a fight in which both countries are on the same side.

Turkey, a NATO ally, has allowed the United States and other members of the American-led coalition to use its air bases in southern Turkey, particularly Incirlik Air Base near Adana. Sorties launched from the base can get to the operations area in a matter of minutes rather than the hours it takes when operating from bases in the Arab Gulf states.

Several senior Turkish officials have made thinly-veiled threats that they may terminate American access to the base if the situation is not resolved. To the Turks, that means having it their way.

If they refuse to allow American combat aircraft to operate from Incirlik, it will have a serious impact on operations directly supporting the eventual assault on the ISIS stronghold/capital city of al-Raqqah.

To understand the issue between the two NATO allies, we need to look at the two separate anti-ISIS military operations currently underway in northern Syria.

First, we have an operation - Operation Euphrates Shield - launched by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that has successfully pushed ISIS back all the way from the Turkish border in an area north of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River to the city of al-Bab, with the final objective being the liberation of al-Raqqah. The FSA is being supported by Turkish airpower, armor, artillery and special forces - the Turks have lost several of its troops, including two soldiers who were taken prisoner by ISIS and later burned alive.

The Turks believe it would be better if this force liberated al-Raqqah, because the FSA are mostly Sunni Arabs, and will be welcomed by the local population. I think that is a fair assessment, but the problem is one of geography, not demographics. The Turkish supported FSA force near al-Bab is almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah - it will take many weeks, if not many months for this force to reach al-Raqqah.

On the other side of the issue, there is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, or QSD in Arabic), comprised of Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds, some from an organization known as the YPG. This group presents itself as Arab-Kurdish cooperation, and is an attempt to put to present a less-threatening image of Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds comprise the bulk of the SDF and constitute the most effective force facing ISIS.

Why is Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS a problem? The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an arm of the Kurdish PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been branded a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey. The Turks are alarmed at even the merest hint of Kurdish nationalism or autonomy in either Syria or Iraq, believing any such movement will spill over into southern Turkey.

Elements of the U.S.-supported SDF are now less than 20 miles from al-Raqqah and will soon be approaching the city. The United States believes time is of the essence - the Central Command claims to have evidence that attacks on Western targets are being planned in al-Raqaah and may be launched at any time. Thus, the U.S. advocates an SDF attack on the city as soon as they are in position.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaking out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, hoping that even a Kurdish liberating force would be better than ISIS and at some point life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

For more detailed explanation of the politics involved, please see my article, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?

The issue is further complicated by increased Turkish-Russian (and Iranian) consultations and possible future cooperation in the fight against ISIS and the future of Syria. They are working on both issues, and have purposely excluded the Obama Administration from participating in these talks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted that after Donald Trump becomes president, they may include the United States.

There is a compromise on base access that might work. One of the complaints voiced by the Turks is the hesitation of the United States to provide air support to Turkish forces operating in the fighting near al-Bab. If the Americans agree to dedicate some of its close air support sorties to supporting the Turks, they may drop their threats to limit access to Incirlik.

I have said this in the past, and I will reiterate it. The United States and Turkey are NATO allies - they need to start acting like it.

The al-Raqqah and Kurd issue is another matter, as are the warming relations between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

One step at a time.