Things are happening so quickly in northern Syria that it’s been difficult to keep up–and, in fact, I feel compelled to say that I’m writing this late Monday night, so that, if none of it makes sense by the time it posts on Tuesday morning, you’ll know why. I’ll update tomorrow morning.
As I am on for-real light posting this week I don’t have it in me to get into the weeds, but the upshot is that, as you know, Turkey invaded northern Syria last week, ostensibly to help Syrian rebels (allegedly Free Syrian Army but it’s hard to know these days) drive ISIS out of the city of Jarabulus, but really to keep the Kurds (specifically the YPG, covered by its multi-ethnic “Syrian Democratic Forces” fig leaf) from driving ISIS out of Jarabulus. If the YPG were to take Jarabulus it would bring it one step closer to its goal of controlling the entire stretch of land on the Syrian side of the Syria-Turkey border, an outcome that Turkey will do pretty much anything (including, we now know, invading Syria) to prevent. The Turks then essentially publicly begged the YPG to give them an excuse to drop the pretense that they were there to fight ISIS and get to their real purpose for being in Syria, to fight the YPG.
Turkey’s invasion, dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield,” I guess because the Turks figured that name would generate just the right amount of eye-rolling around the world, occurred relatively simultaneously with US VP Joe Biden’s official visit to Turkey. Biden was there to attempt to demonstrate to Ankara that the US really had nothing to do with the July 15 attempted coup against Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government, and to try to find some common ground for Turkey and the US with respect to Syria. This hasn’t been easy to find, seeing as how the US has been working pretty much hand-in-glove with the YPG in northeastern Syria because the YPG, unlike just about everybody else in Syria, has been willing to take the fight to ISIS, but meanwhile Turkey sees the YPG (via its parent political party, the PYD) as indistinguishable from Turkey’s own Kurdish party, the PKK, with which Ankara is currently at war. So the US and the YPG are friends, Turkey and the YPG are enemies, and the US and Turkey are…well, supposed to be friends (hi, NATO treaty!), but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I joke, but this has of course been a serious problem for the Obama administration–Turkey’s Incirlik air base is vital to the anti-ISIS air campaign, and the US-Turkey alliance is in general one of the bedrocks on which US foreign policy rests.
Biden’s remarks in Turkey seemed to suggest that, voila, the two countries had finally come to some kind of accord with respect to the YPG. Biden said that the Obama administration was making it clear to the YPG that they had to stay on the eastern side of the Euphrates (hence “Operation Euphrates Shield”) or else they would be risking all the American aid that’s enabled them to be so successful over the course of the past couple of years. Presumably, and it was left unsaid, though the fact that Biden was speaking in Turkey while meeting with Turkey’s top leaders certainly implies it, the corollary here was that Turkey would stick to the western side of the Euphrates and not unnecessarily provoke the YPG into some kind of engagement.
So that brings us to whatever is happening in northern Syria right now. Turkey and the rebels it backs are now advancing toward Manbij, the SDF’s biggest conquest west of the Euphrates, and it’s not clear whether the YPG has pulled back to the other side of the river. Turkey says its forces have “liberated” several villages on the way to Manbij, but liberated from whom? That’s not so clear. It seems, based on the reporting that’s been done, that Turkey and its proxies are taking territory from the Kurds, not from ISIS, which would suggest that the YPG hasn’t actually retreated per Washington’s dictate. And Turkey’s advance has been significant enough to prompt the Obama administration, which seemed to be giving Operation Euphrates Shield a thumb’s up last week, to start issuing warnings about Turkish provocations over the weekend:
“We want to make clear that we find these clashes unacceptable and they are a source of deep concern,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Sunday. “This is an already crowded battle space. Accordingly, we are calling on all armed actors to stand down immediately and take appropriate measures to de-conflict.”
The YPG claims that it hasn’t engaged the Turks despite the bombardment it’s taking from Turkish planes and artillery, but, again based on what’s being reported, somebody is resisting the Turkish advance because the Turks are taking losses. The SDF, to the extent that it can be separated from the YPG, says that it is preparing to reinforce Manbij but only with non-Kurdish forces–believe that or don’t, your mileage may vary.
And that, actually, is the real problem now. Turkey and its rebel fighters aren’t going to stop until they take Manbij from the SDF. Ankara is never in a million years going to believe that the YPG has retreated back over the Euphrates and it’s only the non-Kurdish elements of the SDF that are still defending the city. If the SDF plans on resisting Turkey’s attempt to take Manbij there will be a fight, and there’s probably very little Washington can do to talk the two sides down. Which means that one of America’s NATO allies and a group of self-proclaimed FSA rebels (the rebels Washington says it supports), are about to throw down in a full-scale battle with America’s #1 Syrian proxies.
In the New York Times yesterday, Turkish analyst Gönül Tol (whom I’ve interviewed a few times for LobeLog) suggested a way out of this for the Obama administration:
To get out of this quandary, Washington must push the Turkish government for a return to peace talks with its own Kurds, which collapsed last summer. The recent coup attempt has not caused either side of the conflict to rethink its escalation strategy. The government has excluded the pro-Kurdish party from post-coup national unity efforts, and the Turkish military and Kurdish militants have continued battling in the country’s southeast. If Turkey fails to find a peaceful resolution to its Kurdish problem, it will keep seeing the Kurds in Syria as an existential threat and continue attacking the Y.P.G., undermining the United States’ efforts against the Islamic State.
This is going to be a very tough sell, as Tol notes. Fear-mongering about Turkey’s Kurds has become Erdoğan’s most effective political cudgel, and these days he’s constantly in campaign mode trying to muster up enough support so that he can amend the Turkish constitution to accrue unchecked authority to his presidential office. The biggest chit Washington has, the potential extradition of Turkey’s Public Enemy #1, Fethullah Gülen, is fraught with problems, chief among them the fact that Turkey’s extradition request is a mess and that there are actual legal hurdles that said request has to clear in addition to political hurdles. But Tol suggests Washington could offer something else to entice Ankara to talk to the PKK:
But the United States could instead offer Turkey a closer military partnership. Ankara has long wanted to purchase armed Predator drones from the United States, something that has faced opposition in Congress. The Turkish government has also sought cooperation with Washington on defense technology. By working closely with Turkey on these issues, the United States could ease some of Turkey’s security concerns and show the Turkish government it is committed to its security.
That’s potentially dicey, of course. Selling armed Predators to Turkey is probably worth it if it leads to a ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK (and, therefore, the PYD/YPG), but if it doesn’t then you’re liable to see Predator drones striking Kurdish towns in southeastern Turkey or even, if things ever get bad enough, crowds of protesters in downtown Istanbul. But it’s probably worth at least raising the issue with Ankara to see how they respond. At this point, given what’s become of the Obama administration’s plans in Syria, it couldn’t hurt.
You also have to remember that this is all happening in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s sudden decision to launch airstrikes against the YPG in Hasakah, which may have been a gift to Turkey and/or the product of Turkish-Russian-Iranian diplomacy. Note that the one Turkish enemy that doesn’t seem to be a target of Operation Euphrates Shield is Assad and his government. I don’t know if that means anything or not, but the possibility of Turkey recalibrating its position on Assad in exchange for Assad’s support against the YPG is still hanging out there in the aether.