Turkey has done cross-border shelling for a long time now, and has used her air force to bomb Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria. There was even evidence in November 2015 that Turkey had troops deployed just across the Syrian border in northeastern Latakia Province.
But for the first time, on Tuesday, 23 August, Turkey has ordered an entire town on the Turkish border with Syria to evacuate, in preparation for an overt cross-border military operation, complete with an armored invasion force. The objective is to take the Syrian town of Jarablus from Islamic State.
That may sound superficially like it serves America’s goals. (Indeed, the operation is reportedly being supported by NATO air power. That could get messy, if it continues.)
But Turkey has actually been content to have ISIS in control of Jarablus for many months now. The timing and context of this latest move are the key: Turkey’s real objective is to prevent theKurds from wresting Jarablus from ISIS.
And the Turkish entry into the Syrian conflict looks to be part of a joint effort – with Russia, Assad, and Iran – to neutralize the Kurds, as part of the campaign to take all of Syrian territory back from the factions now holding it.
The Kurds have been the major U.S. partner in fighting ISIS in both Syria and northern Iraq. Until the Iran-sponsored Shia militias in Iraq ejected ISIS from Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah – under the military direction of Iran’s Qods Force commander, Qassem Soleimani – the Kurds were by far the most effective ground force against ISIS.
But Erdogan has been uneasy with the Kurds’ success in consolidating territory. Now Turkey wants to roll them up in this sensitive border area.
There are reasons why Iran is satisfied to be part of that effort, at least for now. And for Russia, dealing with or protecting the Kurds is always a calculation, not a cause. Don’t look for Russia to be solidly on one side of this thing; the Russians will maneuver simply to be at the center of it, so everyone has to come to them for solutions.
Remember, Moscow isn’t trying to get out of Syria, or leave Syria in good hands. The whole point for Putin’s Russia is to stay there.
U.S. position eroded beyond recovery
The U.S has been the Kurds’ main patron for a long time now. I very much fear Obama is about to abandon them – because he’d get so much bad press if any Americans got hurt, in the Syrian war realignment that now looks inevitable.
Obama has no intention of strengthening our forces’ posture against that realignment.
More importantly, he has absolutely no policy for what to do other than watch that realignment happen. From a policy standpoint, he’s an inert quantity, a leadership void, tethered to a bunch of SOF, intel assets, and strike-fighters still wandering through the battle space burning gas and bullets.
It’s only with extraordinary pain that I say this, but it would be better for America – because of who’s in the Oval Office – if we did simply pull out. Our forces on scene are in an increasingly impossible situation. They should not be left there, exposed and unsupported. Moreover, there’s nothing they can achieve there. It’s not worth their lives to try to hang on to a situation that’s slipping away, for no positive good. The next president will just have to deal with whatever reality has become, five months from now.
But pulling out – even quietly – and abandoning all pretense of having a policy or a plan would signal a definitive end to the last vestige of U.S leadership in the Middle East. It would be a severe blow to the Kurds, who don’t deserve to be treated that way. It would be a signal of faithlessness that our other long-time partners and allies could not ignore.
It’s difficult to preview comprehensively everything that might be unleashed; it could be very, very bad, or there could be random factors that keep it from getting too bad between now and next January.
- Syria Kurds win battle with government, Turkey mobilizes against them (reuters.com)
- Turkey Prepares for Casualties in Jarablus Fight (wsj.com)
- Syrian rebels backed by Turkish tanks capture key border stronghold from ISIS (washingtonpost.com)
Turkey’s Exhausting Zigzagging Between East and West (gatestoneinstitute.org)