Turkey's Intervention in Syria Puts it On a Collision Course With US Forces

The Turkish operation has laid bare the complexities of the situation in Syria, threatening to spark a new phase in an already brutal conflict.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Turkey is nearing the end of the second week of its incursion into Northwestern Syria, which aims crush Kurdish forces in and around the city of Afrin. Though the Kurds remain in control of most of the area, Turkish authorities have already announced plans to eventually push eastward, setting them up for a direct confrontation with their allies the United States and potentially setting off a larger regional conflagration.

Since the offensive began on Jan. 19, 2018, Turkey claims its forces, along with Turkish-backed Free Syria Army rebels, or TFSA, have ejected the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from nearly 30 broad “zones,” which including 20 individual villages and seven strategic mountain and hilltop positions. These three groups are the main parties operating in the area since the Russian military pulled out its forces there after the operation began, a possibility we had already considered when we at The War Zone first looked at the potential fallout from this Turkish intervention.

“Some 800 terrorists have been killed in Afrin,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boasted in remarks from Presidential Complex in Turkey’s capital Ankara on Feb. 1, 2018. “Hopefully, this number will increase until the evening.”

The YPG has disputed Turkey’s figures in the past, saying it is exaggerating its victories and downplaying its own casualties, which number at least more than a dozen dead and over a 100 wounded per the official tally. Both sides accuse each other of killing civilians, in the course of their operations or deliberately, and reports have emerged alleging TFSA fighters have been responsible for atrocities, including executing and mutilating Kurdish fighters they had captured.

It is difficult to independently assess these claims, but it is clear that the Turks have no intention at present of slowing down their offensive no matter how hard going the fighting has been so far. The Turkish military have already employed much of the full weight of their military, including fixed wing combat aircraft, helicopter gunships, heavy artillery, and tanks, in support of the operation.

The use of Leopard 2 main battle tanks in Syria has become a major issue for fellow NATO member Germany, which has largely stayed silent on the matter of Turkey's intervention against the Kurds. An outcry from opposition politicians and the public did prompt the German government to delay a deal to provide upgrades for those vehicles.

A lack of upgrades, or just spare parts, could become an issue as the operation continues. YPG fighters do have access to significant numbers of anti-tank guided missiles, including the Russian Konkurs and the American-made TOW or examples of its Iranian derivative the Toophan, among other heavy weapons and rocket artillery. There is no indication that Iran has actually supplied any weapons to the Kurdish forces, which could just as easily have come from captured Syrian military stocks.

Kurdish YPG forces have already claimed to have destroyed a number of Turkish armored vehicles. A separate report also claimed that a member of Kurdish Women's Protection Units, or YPJ, an all-female companion organization to the YPG, had destroyed a tank in a suicide attack. 

Kurdish forces also have access to man-portable shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, commonly known as MANPADS, which could pose a challenge to low-flying Turkish aircraft, especially attack helicopters. The PKK has previously used these types of weapons to shoot down gunships within Turkey. On Jan. 31, 2018, TFSA fighter claimed to have captured at least one of these systems from the YPG.

Despite those threats, Turkey has a decided technological edge against the YPG. Turkish authorities have made clear that they won't be deterred from achieving their objectives.

“How long will the operation be?” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency news outlet on Jan. 29, 2018. “This operation will continue until the last terrorist is neutralized. It is not possible to tell a certain period of time. The length of the operation depends on its success.”

How the intervention continues to play out will depend largely on how Turkish authorities define who they’re fighting and why. And that’s where things have already become painfully complex.

Turkey insists that its intervention, which they’ve dubbed Operation Olive Branch, is only aimed at eliminating “terrorists,” including the YPG, and is not an attempt to cleanse all of the Kurds from Afrin and its environs. The real goal appears to be to prevent the Kurdish group from securing a de facto independent state, which Turkey fears could lead to its own Kurdish regions breaking away.

The immediate impetus for the Turkish offensive appears to have been the U.S. government announcement that it planned to stay in Syria and support the local Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the bulk of which are YPG fighters, indefinitely. Erdoğan lashed out at the plan, saying the United States was supporting an "army of terror" and that "this treacherous project’s target is Turkey."

Onder Simsek/LeJournal/SIPA via AP 

A YPG fighter in Syria.

Turkish authorities already say the YPG is a direct extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkey and the United States, among others, have both designated that group, which has fought for decades in the name of greater autonomy or outright independence for a Turkish Kurdistan, as a terrorist organization.

However, the U.S. government insists that the YPG and PKK are two distinct entities. For years, the United States has worked with the YPG as part of the SDF, and the group has been instrumental in routing ISIS in Syria.

The reality is that the two Kurdish groups likely coordinate at least to some degree, though it’s unclear how much they truly share in the way of common strategies or an over-arching agenda. To underscore their claims about the linkage between the organizations, the Turks did release video of one of their aircraft bombing a massive hillside portrait of Abdullah Öcalan, the most prominent of PKK’s founding members who is presently in a Turkish prison, somewhere near the Afrin canton.

But the United States is more worried that the Turkish campaign undermines the fight against ISIS at a particularly critical juncture, potentially giving those terrorists a chance to regroup. The U.S. government has publicly called on both the Turks and the Kurds to keep the focus of their efforts on the Sunni extremists.

“The common threat is ISIS,” Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White told reporters during a press briefing on Feb. 1, 2018. “And anything that takes away from that fight is a distraction.  So that's why we've asked them [the Turks] to restrain themselves and to limit this offensive.”

Turkey has responded to those demands by claiming that they are fighting ISIS, also known as Daesh, as well as the YPG. However, there are no credible reports whatsoever that that latter organization has any presence in Syria’s far northwest corner. Reports suggestions that the Kurdish fighters have released Sunni Arab extremists they had in custody in order to fight Turkish forces and their allies are equally dubious.

Beyond that, Turkey’s President Erdoğan publicly threatened to extend his country’s Syrian intervention eastward on Jan. 26, 2018. On Jan. 27, 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu added his own call for the United States to evacuate its forces from in and around the strategic city of Manbij, which is a major SDF hub in northern Syria. 

Michael Kappeler/Picture-Alliance/DPA via AP 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Leaving Manbij is “not something we are looking into,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, the top American commander for operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, said in response on Jan. 29, 2018. In March 2017, U.S. special operations forces had specifically moved into the area around the city to block Turkish forces and the TFSA from seizing control from the YPG, a move that clearly stung Turkey.

“We will rid Manbij of terrorists, as it was promised to us,” Erdoğan had said on Jan. 26, 2018. “We will either do this together [with the United States] or we will take care of ourselves.”

It’s not hard to imagine that if Erdoğan makes good on this plan that it could lead his troops, or TFSA fighters, into a direct conflict with their supposed American allies. The United States has already said its forces near Manbij regularly come under fire from TFSA elements and are forced to defend themselves, though there have been no reported casualties on either side from these exchanges.

U.S.-Turkish relations have already been especially cool since members of the Turkish military attempted to oust Erdoğan in a coup in 2016. Turkey's president has blamed Fethullah Gülen, a former political ally living in self-imposed exile, for masterminding that plot and has been infuriated by the U.S. government's refusal to turn him over without clear evidence of his involvement.

In the United States, politicians and others have begun to publicly question whether Turkey is truly an ally and some have called for a halt to arms sales and other cooperation, as well as removing dozens of American nuclear weapons from a Turkish Air Base. 

As if things weren’t complicated enough, though, the United States has been equally clear that they do not provide any support to the YPG in the Afrin canton and have a zero tolerance policy for any member of the SDF that shifts their attention away from battling ISIS. Pentagon spokespersons have added that the international coalition fighting the terrorists has at no time ordered any Kurdish elements to reposition themselves to response to the Turkish incursion.

This in turn led to the rather stunning admission that the SDF as a whole, while it benefits from U.S.-coordinated materiel support and air and artillery strikes, operates entirely independent of any direct coalition control. The implication there is that why U.S.-backed fighters might end up cut off from future support, there’s nothing to suggest they couldn’t take the weapons and equipment they have now and set off for Afrin.

At the same time, whether or not the United States would continue to support the YPG, even within the context of the SDF, if the political environment changed sufficiently is equally unclear. in January 2018, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledged "historic connections" between that the group and the PKK and talked favorably about Sunni Arabs in the force.

U.S. President Donald Trump also reportedly called his Turkish counterpart to urge him to reconsider the military operations in and around Afrin and warn about the potential for a direct confrontation with U.S. forces in Syria, according to the White House. Turkey subsequently challenged this interpretation of the phone call, which officials there insisted has been a far less dramatic exchange of views.

And knowing that the United States has no intention of supporting the YPG in Syria’s northwest corner, the Kurds there have made public appeals to the Syrian government, imploring it to defend its sovereign territory against the Turkish invasion. So far, Syria’s dictator Bashar Al Assad has not sent any forces to the area, but his government has decried Turkey’s actions and threatened to shoot down Turkish jets, something they have actually done in the past.

Assad is clearly not thrilled about Turkey invading his country, but he still has to contend with the separate agendas of Russia, one of his primary benefactors. The Russians had previously cut a deal with the YPG in Afrin, but abandoned them in favor of at least tacitly backing Turkey’s operation, most likely as a way to further drive a wedge between authorities in Ankara and Washington.

If Syrian troops were to attack Turkish forces or TFSA rebels, it could put them at odds with the Kremlin, as well as risk Turkey appealing to its NATO allies for support. Assad could try to move closer to Iran, his other primary ally, but that country has recently been beset by a massive outpouring of public furor in part over its involvement in Syria.

Any of these scenarios could have a cascading effect elsewhere in the country and potentially beyond Syria’s borders. There was evidence that PKK and YPG fighters moved into Iraq to support that country’s Kurdish Regional Government’s abortive bid for independence in 2017. Iran and Turkey both sided with the government in Baghdad in forcing Kurdish authorities to back down.

With so many competing agendas and intertwined alliances of convenience, it’s hard to say for sure what might happen, even in the near future. All of this taken together, though, does present a very real possibility of prompting an entirely new phase in the already multi-faceted conflict in Syria.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com