January 5, 2019

Turkey now wants U.S. support to defeat ISIS?

Turkish troops on the Syrian border

Since President Trump's rather surprising decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, there has been concern about the continuation of the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While ISIS fighters have been pushed almost completely out of Syria, there is a stubborn remaining pocket southeast of the city of Dayr al-Zawr.

Trump's announcement came as the forces of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) seized the city of Hajin, the last remaining sizable city still under ISIS control, after three months of bloody fighting, attacks and counterattacks.

The bulk of the SDF is made up of Syrian Kurds belonging to the People's Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials YPG. The SDF/YPG has done the lion's share of the ground combat against ISIS in northern Syria, with extensive air, artillery, logistics, and advisory support from the U.S.-led coalition. The YPG's continued participation in the fight against ISIS is critical.

In formulating his withdrawal decision, President Trump spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reportedly during that conversation, Trump asked Erdoğan, "If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?” Erdoğan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task. Evidently, Trump took Erdoğan at his word.

I really wish President Trump had followed the advice of, well, virtually everybody. I have been quite vocal in my writings and on-air interviews that I regard taking the word of the president of an unreliable NATO ally a huge mistake - I think I used the words "serious blunder."

Why do I say that? Let's look a the map.

I have drawn a red circle around the last remaining ISIS pocket, the al-Sha'afah pocket - in the middle Euphrates Valley east of the river. The larger pocket to the west is in the area of Syria controlled by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, with his Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hizballah supporters, without whom he would have been removed from power years ago. That pocket is mainly desert and of no real strategic or tactical consequence.

It is ludicrous to think that the Turks are willing and capable of "cleaning up ISIS" in Syria. The closest Turkish troops to the al-Sha'afah pocket are at least 275 kilometers/170 miles away.

The only way for Turkish ground forces - tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, troop transports, supply trucks - plus a huge logistics tail, is to traverse that distance through territory controlled and inhabited by Syrian Kurds, as well as a significant number of Assyrians.

Can the Turks pull this off? Short answer: No.

Longer answer: To accomplish what they claim they are willing to do - "clean up ISIS" - they will need a lot of support. Who is going to provide that support? The Turks have requested that the United States provide air strikes, logistics, and transportation.

Not only are the Turks not capable of the logistics of this operation, they have to solve the problem of traversing what will undoubtedly be hostile territory. It might be that the Turks are asking for so much assistance that it would require the deployment of additional American troops to Syria, rather than reducing the number.

What the Turks are really asking is for the United States to arrange safe passage for Turkish forces through the areas controlled by the YPG, the very people the Turkish president has branded as terrorists, nothing more than an extension of the terrorist group PKK. The PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in southeastern Turkey, has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government for decades.

I do not think the United States will be able to - nor should it - attempt to arrange safe passage with a group that Erdoğan has vowed to eliminate militarily. The YPG will not trust the Turks (I don't either). Exacerbating the issue is the increased wariness on the part of the Kurds as to what American intentions are in Syria, and what commitment the United States is willing to make. If I were the Kurds, I would refuse.

The existing coalition is perfectly capable of removing ISIS from Syrian territory. Two things are required for that to happen. First, the U.S.-led coalition must remain intact. In other words, American forces must continue the fight in Syria.

Second, the Turks need to stop threatening an incursion into northern Syria to attack the YPG. If the YPG believes the Turks are going to attack, they will stop operations against ISIS in the al-Sha'afah pocket and redeploy back to their homes to defend their territory and families. The fight against ISIS will stagnate. ISIS has in the past taken advantage of previous Turkish tantrums to launch counterattacks.

The Turks continue to be difficult "allies." They threaten and make preparations to move troops into northern Syria, extending from the 'Afrin area (venue of a previous unhelpful and unnecessary Turkish incursion) east to the Iraqi border, an area mostly inhabited by Kurds.

Then they make a commitment to President Trump to finish the removal of ISIS from Syria - an objective I do not believe they are capable of attaining. To do that, they now ask for American assistance, including negotiating with the very group they want to destroy.

I don't trust Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He has been a consistent obstacle in the ongoing fight against ISIS. He knows his forces are not going to reach the middle Euphrates Valley to fight ISIS - that was never the plan. Erdoğan wants to eliminate the YPG, and he wants us to help him do it.

This entire charade is not a Turkish commitment to "finish ISIS," it's a plan to attack the Kurds in Syria.