By: Yousif Ismael
May 12, 2017
As “Wrath of Euphrates,” the operation to liberate Raqqa, continues, the U.S. has bolstered its military support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Backed by the U.S.-led coalition, the SDF launched an operation in December 2016 to liberate the de-facto capital of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). “I do know that yesterday [May 8] the President authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. Spicer also praised the SDF, the saying “[SDF] [is] the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.” However, the Turkish government considers the Trump administration’s decision to be “unacceptable.” Turkey considers the Kurdish faction of the SDF to be terrorists with connections to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK and the Turkish government have been in conflict for decades over the rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey. In 1997 the PKK were listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.
President Trump’s decision to double down on supporting the SDF and its Kurdish forces, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), in the fight against ISIS came as a result of several events that occurred in Syria involving Turkey and the policies of its President Rajab Tayib Erdogan. These events occurred during the Trump administration as well as during the previous (Obama) administration. And these were events and actions that only served as an impediment for a truly successful push forward in the fight against ISIS:
- Turkish Strikes: On April 25, 2017, Turkish warplanes bombarded positions of the U.S. -backed forces of the YPG in Syria, leaving 28 fighters dead, fighters who were trained and equipped by the U.S.-led coalition. Turkish warplanes also targeted PKK members in Shingal, Iraq — an area where the PKK now resides after saving the Yazidi from ISIS. But that’s not all: Turkish strikes also killed five Peshmerga from the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq by “mistake.” These airstrikes also put the lives and safety of U.S. military forces at risk, as many U.S. military personnel were embedded with SDF and YPG forces. “We had forces within six miles of the strike,” said Colonel John Dorrian, the Spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force. Later, a senior aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested American troops could be targeted alongside their Kurdish allies. The U.S. State Department has expressed “deep concern” over these incidents. Moreover, U.S. troops were obligated to deploy alongside the Syria-Turkey border to stop clashes between the YPG and the Turkish military when the latter attacked the Kurdish forces again with artillery. This move not only embarrassed the U.S. in front of its Kurdish allies but it halted the fight against ISIS which remains the top priority for the current and former U.S. administrations.
- Manbij Offensive: After a few successful operations with Kurdish forces, the U.S.-led coalition planned a bigger task for the SDF: the liberation of Manbij city in Aleppo Province. Manbij served as a vital base for ISIS terrorists, who were able to use the area to cross into Turkey, both to import new recruits and to export terrorists abroad. For example, one YPG fighter said that the Paris attackers were trained in Manbij. The Manbij offensive started on May 31, 2016 and, after a series of different stages, ended on August 12, 2016. The main faction inside the SDF to clear the city was the Manbij Military Council (MMC). Later, the MCC released a balance sheet for the operation, which counted “4180 enemies [ISIS] killed” and “264 Kurdish, Arabic and internationalist fighters martyred.” The Manbij liberation not only allowed U.S. and SDF forces to liberate more areas from ISIS, but it also helped the U.S. gather a new trove of intelligence on ISIS. Nearly three days after the Manbij liberation, the creation of the Al Bab Military Council (BMC) was announced. The BMC was organized both by the SDF and by locals from Al Bab, an area west of Manbij which under ISIS control at the time.
- The Euphrates Shield: Soon after the SDF liberated Manbij they formed the Jarabulus Military Council (JMC) to liberate Jarabulus, a town bordering Turkey, from ISIS. Despite its close proximity to Turkey, the Erdogan government took no serious actions to remove ISIS from Jarabulus for over two years. Similar to the formation of the MMC, the JMC included elements of Kurds and Arabs from the area. Turkey quickly recognized how successful the SDF had become, especially in the eyes of the U.S.-led coalition. This progress only continued after the SDF successfully organized a local council in Manbij to help the people of Manbij govern themselves. Yet Turkey only viewed the success of the SDF as a threat and rejected the SDF’s calls for autonomy and democratic confederalism across Syria and the rest of the Middle East. As in years past, the Turkish government stated fears that the empowerment of Kurds in Syria would have detrimental effects on the territorial integrity of Turkey, where millions of Kurds reside without basic human rights. As the final attempt to stop the SDF, Turkey supported Islamic groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), including groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, to liberate Jarabulus from ISIS. The head of the JMC Abdula-Star Al Jadar was assassinated a few hours after declaring his rejection to Turkey’s invasion. The SDF accused Turkish intelligence of orchestrating Al Jadar’s assassination. The Turkey-backed Islamic groups were able to seize the town after ISIS withdrew and chose to reinforce in Al Bab city. Upon the “liberation” of Jarabulus city, Turkey began initiating attacks against the SDF and Kurdish forces. Later, the Turkish-backed groups launched an offensive to take over Al Bab from ISIS. Having airpower, tanks, artillery and hundreds of Turkish army soldiers escorting the Islamic groups, the Al Bab operation failed to attract adequate support from the international community and the U.S.-led coalition, especially after the operation resulted in both a large number of civilian casualties as well as substantial Turkish military losses. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SORH) released a report stating that during these attacks by Turkish forces and their affiliates (including shellings, airstrikes) “in the overall total of civilian martyrs, 497 civilians [were killed] including 122 children under the age of 18 and 79 [elderly] citizens.” The Turkish military also lost 34 personnel during the clashes. Adding to the chaos and unnecessary bloodshed, some members of the Turkey-backed Islamic groups provided Turkish tanks to ISIS. Thus the Al Bab operation only further proved that Turkey and its Islamist affiliate groups aren’t capable alternatives to the SDF for the U.S. coalition in its fight against ISIS.
- Astana peace talks: In late 2016, Turkey, Iran, and Russia agreed to conduct “peace talks” over Syria in Kazakhstan’s Capital. These talks were a threesome agreement between Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The U.S. was mostly excluded from the process, despite the participation of the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan during the first round of talks and the presence of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the recent fourth round of talks. The results these “Astana Talks” raised questions numerous questions about Turkey’s relationship with Russia — for example over the creation of four de-escalation zones in Syria. The Department of State expressed concerns over the four-way agreement, with spokesperson Heather Nauert stating “we continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor, adding that “ Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.” The White House and Pentagon have yet to decide whether they will support this agreement or not. Despite the fact, Turkey is constantly praised as an important NATO ally and partner. Through these actions the Turkish government, with its unilateral negotiations with Iran and Russia, displayed a blatant disregard for U.S. and NATO interests. It is also now evident that Turkey’s President Erdogan’s alleged ardent support for regime change in Syria and concern for the safety and lives of the people of Syria was not serious as he originally let the world believe; for, Turkey had no problem engaging in these as Astana Talks while Aleppo fell and thousands of civilians lost their lives at the hands of the Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes.
- Incirlik Air Base: The strategically located air base, Incirlik Air Base, is often cited by foreign policy talking heads as a fundamental reason why the United States and its European allies still must retain Turkey as a close global partner at the expense of issues pertaining to democracy and human rights. Yet Incirlik Air Base has essentially operated as a non-factor for the U.S. and its European allies since 2003, when Turkey’s government prevented using the base to deploy American ground troops through Turkey during “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” In recent years, after the initial rise of ISIS, when it declared the formation of its “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, it took Turkey more than a year to allow the U.S- led coalition forces to use the air base and launch airstrikes against the terrorist organization. In fact, in order for the U.S. to utilize the base for its anti-ISIS campaign, the United States agreed to allow Turkey to become a member of the anti-ISIS coalition. Yet, during the first days of this anti-ISIS campaign, when the fledgling terrorist organization was strengthening its regional roots and expanding its efforts globally, Turkey’s planes flew first not to target ISIS but rather to attack the Kurdish PKK forces with heavy bombardments. Turkey also has repeatedly threatened to shut down U.S. access to Incirlik base unless certain demands were met, with the most recent threat coming earlier this month, on Thursday, May 10th. In response to the uncertainty now surrounding Incirlik Air Base, the U.S. might begin using alternative bases in Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan or Qatar.
Beyond these aforementioned events, Turkey continues to engage in other policies against the U.S. and its interest abroad, policies that continue to exhibit animosity toward America and the west. For instance, after the failed coup attempt against President Erdogan on July 2016, the Turkish media began aggressively spreading conspiracy theory narratives accusing the CIA and think-tankers in Washington for orchestrating the coup. Some outlets even went as far as to accuse the U.S. of the killing of the Russian ambassador in Ankara despite the fact that the killer was a Turk and a supporter of Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra. Turkey has also recently begun working counter to U.S. interests in Iraq, where Turkey occupied a military base in Bashiqa to train its Sunni Arab and Turkmen forces without U.S. coalition participation or cooperation. Not surprisingly, this rogue Turkish military base created three -way tension between the Iraqi government, Turkey, and the U.S.
In contrast to this ever-deteriorating relationship with Turkey, the U.S. experience in Syria with the Kurds and their non-Kurdish allies has only grown in strength and positivity. This recent relationship first started in Kobani in late 2014 when the YPG repelled the biggest offensive of ISIS on the town. The YPG proved they could fight and win, especially with the help of U.S. airpower. Despite this burgeoning relationship, the U.S. continued to train and arm other Syrian opposition groups — groups that ultimately failed to adequately or successfully fight ISIS or the Syrian regime. In fact, the Obama administration ended up wasting $500 Million Training Syrian Rebels. Most the equipment provided to these groups ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda’s Al Nusra Front.
Therefore, it’s clear that the United States’ recent decision to arm the YPG/SDF isn’t predominantly because of some newfound ethical stand based on love for the Kurds and their interests, but this decision is rather a reaction against the Turkish policies in Syria, where Erdogan has made clear that fighting ISIS isn’t a Turkish priority. These policies halted the fight against ISIS on several occasions. On the other hand, if the U.S. had armed Kurdish forces in reaction to Turkey’s needless and immoral strikes against the Kurds in Syria, then one could argue that the decision to arm was ultimately pro-Kurdish. Or, if the U.S. and its allies had decided to recognize federalism and self-rule in Syria, as founded by the Kurds, in addition to arming Kurdish forces, one could most certainly argue that this action was ultimately pro-Kurdish. But that is not the current reality. That’s why the Kurds hope that in the long run, this recent decision isn’t simply a ploy to use the Kurds as pawns towards other ends, as one former Obama administration official suggested.
That being said, the Trump administration’s recent decision to arm the SDF is a good decision in the long-run. It’s a decision that involves supporting a strong secular, multi-ethnic force in Syria. Yet is essential that this support continues in other areas. If, after ISIS is defeated, the U.S.-led coalition continues its support for the SDF, the Assad regime can easily be countered. Contrast this to Syria’s current situation where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the FSA, yet pro-Al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood groups still dominate the opposition forces while Assad still remains in power. The main question for the United States remains: how hard is it to decide on a path forward for Syria? The choices are clear: the Syrian regime sponsored by Iran and Russia, the Islamic factions sponsored by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, or the Syrian Democratic Forces supporters of federalism, gender equality, secularism, multi-ethnic cooperation, and peaceful future for Syria.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors and contributes do not necessary reflect those on the WKI.