Turkey Is Finally Bombing Syria, But It’s Not Hitting Who the U.S. Wants
Ankara has sent tanks and commandos across the border, but its primary focus isn't ISIS — it's the Kurds trying to seize territory along its border.
Turkey has a name for its newly launched military incursion into neighboring Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield. It sums up Ankara’s overriding priority when it comes to the war there: preventing Kurdish forces from seizing a contiguous stretch of territory along its southern flank.
The lightning operation that kicked off before dawn on Wednesday was billed as a way to push the Islamic State out of Jarablus — its last stronghold on the Turkish border. But the timing, and subsequent statements from officials in Ankara, have made clear that Turkey is focused on the threat posed by advancing Kurdish fighters rather than on the Islamic State militants who had held the border town since 2014.
The assault by about a dozen Leopard tanks, a contingent of Turkish special operations forces, and several hundred Syrian rebels — all backed up by American F-16 and A-10 fighter planes — was touted in a brand-new English-language Turkish government Twitter account: @EuphratesShield.
As the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels consolidated their hold on the town, the account posted increasingly anti-Kurd messages, delivering propaganda tying the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia battling the Islamic State inside Syria to the PKK, a Turkish-based Kurdish militant group that has been waging a bloody, decades-long battle with Ankara to gain Kurdish independence.
The PKK, an acronym for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, was formed in the late 1970s as a Marxist-inspired Kurdish independence movement, and the fighting between the group and the Turkish government has cost about 40,000 lives. The war reached a peak in the 1990s, when Turkish forces destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages, forcing hundreds of thousands of Kurds to leave the country or flee elsewhere within Turkey.
After years of relative calm, a fragile 2-year-old cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish government unraveled last year. The PKK has staged attacks on police stations and military bases, employing terrorist tactics with suicide bombings and roadside bombs that have claimed hundreds of lives.
Ankara makes no distinction between the PKK and the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, one of Washington’s most effective battlefield allies in Syria. The United States, though, only designates the PKK as a terrorist group, which has triggered years of tensions between the two countries.
The upshot is that Ankara is concerned about the Islamic State but is far more worried about the threat posed by its Kurdish adversaries. Despite a rash of deadly attacks within Turkey since last year, including a bombing at a wedding party on Saturday that claimed 54 lives, the Islamic State isn’t considered a major threat to the Turkish people, who have suffered terrorist attacks for decades. It sees a successful Kurdish effort to conquer and hold territory along its border as a potentially existential danger to the Turkish state. And no Turkish leader — especially President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a nationalist — wants to be accused of having allowed the Kurds to build an independent state on the country’s southern border.
“We will not allow the formation of a new ‘Qandil’ on our southern border,” Erdogan said in February, referring to the mountain range in northern Iraq where the PKK has set up bases in its insurgency against the Turkish state.
The timing of Operation Euphrates Shield carries clear political benefits for Erdogan, whose government is still reeling from a July 15 failed coup that has prompted a massive crackdown on his real and perceived foes. The coup attempt was led by a group of military officers, and the incursion into Syria has allowed Erdogan to demonstrate that the armed forces are under his authority and still able to assert Turkey’s interests, said Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“It’s strategically opportune and politically opportune to launch this now,” Stein told Foreign Policy.
The United States has long lobbied Turkey to take on a more decisive role in the fight against the Islamic State, and it was not until last year that the Americans secured permission to conduct airstrikes in Syria from its base in Incirlik in southeast Turkey. Ankara for the most part has preferred to arm rebel groups fighting the Damascus regime while appealing to Washington to help forge a “buffer zone” along its border.
Now, Stein said, “at least the Turks have decided to put real skin in the game.”
The immediate impetus for Wednesday’s incursion was the movement of YPG forces north toward Jarablus after having helped flush the Islamic State out of the town of Manbij this month. Both Turkish and U.S. officials have long admonished the Kurdish militia that it would have to steer clear of Jarablus given its strategic location on the Turkish frontier.
The U.S.-backed Kurds, who took Manbij with the help of dozens of U.S. airstrikes and special operations advisors, have been “leaning forward in a way that is making the Turks nervous,” said the Institute for the Study of War’s Jennifer Cafarella.
At a news conference in Ankara on Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden warned Kurdish forces to leave the town. “We have made it clear to Kurdish forces that they must move back across the river,” he said. “They cannot and will not get American support if they do not keep that commitment, period.”
The Kurds have already backed down, at least temporarily. On Wednesday, YPG fighters agreed to leave Manbij and move back to their starting line on the Euphrates.
“At the request of the U.S.-backed SDF, we are withdrawing from west of the Euphrates,” a Kurdish spokesman said.
One of the reasons the Kurds agreed to leave is that with Jarablus in Turkish hands, their forces in Manbij are for the first time within range of the Turkish army’s formidable artillery.
The fight for Jarablus appears to have been short-lived. After several hours of fighting, Turkey declared it cleared of Islamic State fighters. But early reports indicate that the militants fled to the nearby Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab, which is on the road to Aleppo.
It remains unclear whether the relatively limited Turkish military presence will expand around Jarablus, and whether the Turks will opt to push farther into Syria. It’s possible Turkish forces will leave some tanks in the area to fend off any counterattacks by the Islamic State, experts said.
While the Turks weigh their options, their Free Syrian Army allies are likely to move soon on al-Bab, another Islamic State bastion to the southwest, as it would allow Ankara to “cut the linking of the two Kurdish enclaves” east and west of the Euphrates River, said the Washington Institute’s Soner Cagaptay, director of the group’s Turkish Research Program.
By prohibiting the Kurds from establishing an unbroken zone of influence in northern Syria, Ankara ensures that YPG fighters will be unable to form an autonomous Kurdish enclave that stretches along Turkey’s border, while also giving Turkey a zone of influence inside Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu added his voice Wednesday to the chorus of Turkish officials demanding that the Kurds retreat over the Euphrates — and added a not-too-subtle threat. “The U.S. also supports this,” he said. “Otherwise, I am saying very clearly that we will do what is necessary.”
Photo credit: FIRAS FAHAM/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary