Ankara is organizing Syrian rebels for an assault on the Islamic State’s last stronghold along the Turkish border and could even use its warplanes to support their advance.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — One month ago, Abu Mohammed al-Halabi painted a dismal picture of his fighters’ struggles against the Islamic State along a crucial geographical corridor north of the Syrian city of Aleppo. The jihadis had killed three of his men in a nighttime ambush in mid-June while using night-vision goggles more advanced than anything his group possessed. His brigade had been fighting for 10 days straight without any injection of money or equipment. If this continued for another week, the beleaguered rebel commander told Foreign Policy, “anything could happen” — even a complete collapse of rebel lines.
“There has been one airstrike [by the anti-Islamic State coalition], and it’s so shameful” that there hasn’t been any more support, he said in June. “Our friends give us shameful amounts of aid.”
But now, Abu Mohammed, a leader of Thuwar al-Sham — an alliance of rebel brigades active in Aleppo city and the surrounding countryside that claims to include roughly 3,500 fighters in its ranks — is singing a different tune. An agreement last week between Ankara and Washington to fight the Islamic State has left him optimistic that new military equipment and even game-changing airstrikes could soon be on their way.
“What is going on is definitely beneficial to the revolution,” he told FP on July 30 while sitting in his office in this southern Turkish city. “There is a kind of meeting of interests between the Turks, the revolutionaries, and now the United States.”
On July 27, Turkish officials and leaders of rebel brigades in Aleppo met to discuss a new effort to eliminate the Islamic State from the last stretch of land it controls along the Turkish border. At the meeting, Ankara pressed the rebels to take new steps to organize their ranks in preparation for the upcoming assault and promised to take previously unprecedented steps, including providing air support, to sustain the offensive. On July 28, a similar meeting was held between rebel groups and members of the Military Operations Center, known as the MOM, which includes many of the foreign powers that are supporting the armed opposition, including the United States. (The meetings were confirmed by three rebel commanders and officials with knowledge of what was discussed.)
Abu Mohammed said the Turks were pushing the rebel brigades to establish a joint military operations room to fight the Islamic State along the roughly 60-mile stretch of land between the Syrian cities of Jarabulus and Azaz. The operations room would allow the different brigades to coordinate their positions along the front lines, share intelligence, and provide a conduit to their regional allies to request airstrikes that would enable their assaults on jihadi positions.
Abu Mohammed said that the brigades had received assurances from Ankara that Turkish warplanes would strike Islamic State positions in support of the rebels’ ground offensives. But he also said that it would take more than air power to advance against the Islamic State: His group needs large amounts of ammunition and weaponry, as well as trucks and armored personnel carriers to move its fighters quickly over the relatively flat ground that makes up the front lines in the area. On that point, too, he was optimistic: “The Turks promised to give us everything,” he said.
The planned offensive coincides with an agreement between Washington and Ankara to allow U.S. and allied warplanes to take off from Turkish air bases in the country’s south in order to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State. Turkey has simultaneously launched a crackdown against both jihadis and Kurdish activists on its own soil, and it has also launched airstrikes against Kurdish insurgents in northern Iraq. Both the United States and Turkey agree that the Islamic State should be driven from its territory along the Turkish border, though U.S. officials only speak of an “ISIL-free zone” while Turkish officials describe a vision for a “de facto safe zone” where displaced Syrians could find refuge from both regime and jihadi attacks.
As part of the agreement to open Turkey’s air bases to coalition aircraft, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters this week, the United States agreed to engage with Ankara on how to organize moderate opposition fighters to capture the Islamic State-held territory along the Turkish border. “We’re going to be working with [rebel groups that] have been working with us in the past,” one U.S. official said. “And we’re going to intensify that effort, and the Turks are going to be very much a part of that.”
Washington’s and Ankara’s differing views over the role of Syrian Kurdish fighters, however, threaten to complicate their new cooperation. The United States has coordinated closely with the Kurds, essentially transforming its air campaign in Syria into an effort to facilitate the Kurdish advance. Well over 1,000 coalition airstrikes have supported the Kurdish fighters in the previously besieged town of Kobani, for instance, while over the past two months, only roughly two dozen airstrikes have been launched against the Islamic State in the Aleppo countryside, where it is fighting predominantly Arab rebel groups.
For Ankara, however, the Kurds in Syria are enemies rather than allies. The dominant Kurdish party in the region, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish insurgent group now engaged in an increasingly bloody guerrilla war with the Turkish state. Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group accused the Turkish military this week of shelling a Kurdish-held town on the border of the Islamic State’s territory along the Turkish border, though officials in Ankara denied the allegation.
Some analysts have argued that Ankara’s true motivation in intervening in the Syrian war now is to disrupt the growing U.S. alliance with the PYD and present itself as a more viable partner for Washington. On a conference call with reporters this week, Fred Hof, former U.S. special advisor for Syria, said that Ankara could be aiming “to water down or mitigate Washington’s current dependence on the Kurdish PYD.”
Abu Mohammed, meanwhile, is eager for the support that the United States and Turkey can provide, but has no illusions on whose security they’re looking after.
“The countries are still working for their own self-interests,” he said, grimacing in frustration in his office. “Turkey is concerned about the Kurds, and the United States is afraid of Daesh coming to attack its own soil — but hundreds of Syrians are killed from barrel bombs, and nobody cares.”
ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images