October 15, 2019

Syria and Turkey - the NATO realities

Turkish troops in northern Syria - unnecessary and  unhelpful

The situation in northern Syria is in complete disarray, and changing by the hour. If you could take a snapshot of what is going on, it would have all the makings of confusing international geopolitical suspense movie.

Just a few days ago, the United States and its in-name-only NATO ally Turkey had arrived at an uneasy status quo in which military forces of the two countries were conducting combined patrols along the Syrian-Turkish border. The patrols were in essence a confidence-building measure by which the U.S.-allied, trained, and equipped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attempted to convince the Turks that they were not a terrorist organization, and that they posed no territorial (or other) threat to Turkey. The Turks were gathering intelligence on the best attack axes.

The SDF is composed of mostly Syrian Kurds from the militia known as the People's Protection Unit - known more commonly by the Kurdish initials YPG - along with some Arab, Assyrian/Syriac, Armenian, and other militias. Turkish press accounts aside, these fighters were the key ground combat unit that removed the scourge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from its territorial holdings in the country.

Why was this a problem? We have a U.S.-led coalition conducting an effective air campaign in support of an indigenous - Syrians all - on the ground. The SDF did the bulk of the fighting against ISIS, at the cost of over 10,000 killed in the fighting. This combination of forces required the presence of less that 1,000 American troops on the ground in Syria.

This was an effective use of American air power and special operations forces to leverage local militias - this is right out of the textbook taught at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.

The problem, as far as the Turks are concerned, was the training and equipping of the SDF, or more specifically the YPG, by the United States and its allies - including key NATO allies the United Kingdom and France. Turkey believes that the SDF is an illegitimate organization.

To the Turks, the YPG is nothing more than extension of the Turkish Kurd separatist party known as the Kurdish Workers' Party, or by the Kurdish initials PKK. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, European Union (EU), and Japan. The United States and the EU may have made the designation as a favor to their NATO ally.

As the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF successfully pushed ISIS out of city after city, the Turks were sidelined. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted that the liberation of ISIS's capital city of al-Raqqah had to be done by Turkish troops. The only problem was that the YPG was not about to let the anti-Kurd Turks access to their areas of northern Syria. When Turkish troops pushed into northern Syria near the city of Manbij, the Kurds fought them to a standstill - they were stuck in place over 100 miles from al-Raqqah.

The SDF was ready to make the assault on al-Raqqah, a city that was crying out for relief from ISIS atrocities. It would have taken the Turks months to get there, having had to fight their way through the U.S.-allied SDF/YPG.

I remember saying at the time that the Turks were going to be a problem after ISIS was defeated. For the Turks, it was not, and is not, about ISIS. It's about the Kurds, specifically the Kurds in neighboring Syria. What better time that during a civil war in Syria to mount a cross border operation and destroy what is perceived to be a threat?

True to form, as soon as the ISIS threat abated, the Turks renewed their threats of a military incursion to "clear the area of terrorists." It was only a matter of time. The presence of a handful of American special operations forces on the border was not going to stop them.

Map and annotations: IHS Markit and the New York Times

President Trump, to my chagrin, was not forceful enough to convince Erdoğan that this was unnecessary and unhelpful, especially since ISIS remained a threat in parts of Syria and Iraq. For some time, Erdoğan had been moving Turkey more toward being an Islamic state rather than the secular republic envisioned and established decades earlier by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk would hardly recognize what Erdoğan has wrought.

I am not sure if it was by accident, or if someone in the Erdoğan government (I would call it an Islamist regime, but they are technically still a NATO ally) actually understands the reality of NATO politics. Would the United States side with the SDF/YPG against a NATO ally? We all know the answer to that - it's a resounding no.

While we believe we have an obligation to protect the YPG - protect them not only from Turkish troops, but against the marauding, undisciplined, bloodthirsty former al-Qaidah and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels now used as proxies by Ankara.

The NATO alliance is almost sacrosanct among the members. Sacrosanct, it appears, except to its sole majority Muslim and Asian member. Turkey may think it's a European country, but it would be the only one that thinks that, given Erdoğan's AKP party moves toward Islamism.

Why is Turkey so important to the United States that it balks at defending the Kurds? A look at the map of the region should be enough.

Turkey is not only the bridge between Asia/East and Europe/West, it also sits astride the Bosporus and Dardanelles, the two narrow waterways that control access between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. In practical terms, it is the only sea route from the Russia Navy's ice-free port at Sebastopol (in what many call "occupied Crimea") and the best route to the Russian-leased Syrian port of Tartus.

Unhindered access to the Turkish straits and a route to Tartus (the red line on the map) is strategically and tactically important to Russia. So, Russian intervention in Crimea and Syria within just a few years of each other - coincidence?

So, now the unintended consequences of Turkey's ill-advised incursion into Syria will visit us.

As mentioned, the lead elements of the Turkish assault into northern Syria - after the air and artillery strikes - were not even minimally-disciplined Turkish troops, but former al-Qa'idah, FSA, and other Islamists. These undisciplined thugs ran amok, executing any Kurdish officials they encountered, ransacked homes, and caused unnecessary civilian casualties.

Faced with no U.S.-led coalition support, the SDF, or probably more correctly, the YPG made a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, yes, the same Bashar al-Asad who on several occasions had ordered the use of chemical weapons on Syrian citizens.

The Kurds, still Syrians, were now faced with a Turkish onslaught with no hope of support from the U.S.-led coalition with whom they had battled ISIS. They requested the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) move forward to fight the Turkish incursion.

What choice did they have? For Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, in Turkey, in Iran - as they say, there are no friends but the mountains. They believed, probably correctly, that they were now on their own.

So now we have the Syrian army entering the fight on the side of, and at the request of, the SDF. What we may see are the national forces of two countries - Turkey and Syria - fighting each other, escalating the fighting from an army on one side and militias on the other, to a battle between two states.

Unfortunately, the way this has unfolded with Turkish President Erdoğan's unnecessary and unhelpful actions against the U.S.-allied SDF, many observers are now siding with the murderous Syrian regime against a NATO ally.

Some history for those who "have not read history and are doomed to repeat it."

- Our involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in 1975 at the behest of the Shah of Iran was about Iran, not them.
- Our involvement with the mujahidin in the 1980s in Afghanistan was about the Soviet Union, not them.
- Our involvement with the Iraqis in 1988 was about Iran, not them.

And as realpolitik goes, our involvement with the SDF/YPG was about ISIS, not them.

Bottom line, whether we like it or not, our relationship with the Kurds was a tactical alliance to defeat ISIS. The NATO/U.S. alliance with Turkey is a strategic alliance about the Russians.

Despite American issues with Turkey's acquisition of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, Ankara's removal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, its support of Islamist movements, and Erdoğan unwise incursion into Syria, the strategic NATO relationship supercedes any tactical relationship with the YPG.

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have been dispatched to Turkey to discuss the situation. This is an easy one. President Erdoğan, adhere to an immediate ceasefire, let's start a dialogue, and the sanctions on Turkey's economy will continue until that happens.

Yes, Turkey is a strategic partner which NATO needs, but we need to extract a price for this ill-advised course of action. Erdoğan, not our friend, needs to recognize he isn't the new Sultan.