Tense border situation risks military conflict between U.S. and Turkey - analyst

There is a risk of clashes along the Syrian-Turkish border between Turkish troops and Syrian Kurdish forces, and U.S. troops based there could be drawn into the fighting, Ian Lesser, deputy head of the German Marshall Fund, told German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Monday that Turkey would strangle at birth a mainly Kurdish border force being trained by U.S. forces in northern Syria and promised an offensive to capture the Kurdish-held Syrian towns of Afrin and Manbij was close at hand.

The United States has backed the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) as the most reliable fighting force against Islamic State in northern Syria. Turkey fears a viable Kurdish-run region in northern Syria could boost calls for autonomy from its own large Kurdish population.

“In the background, the dispute over the U.S. sponsoring the People’s Protection Units (YPG) for a few years rests on an even longer dispute between America and Turkey on their policy towards the Kurds,” Lesser said.

“In a more serious sense, there is a political dispute and even the risk of conflict along the border, and American military trainers are also based in the region.”

Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdoğan should be careful about what they say in order to protect the alliance, Lesser said.

“The leaders on both sides should pay attention to the language they are using because this already-risky situation may get worse and reach a dangerous level. This manner will be read as not very constructive in Washington.”

The Kurdish issue in Syria was a particularly sensitive one for Turkey, Lesser said, because it affected the country deeply on a domestic level.

However, from both the German and the U.S. perspective, Turkey had been an unenthusiastic ally against Islamic State (ISIS), he said.

“I am not saying that Turkey supported this movement in any way, but I believe that there was an increasing questioning of whether Turkey was a trustworthy partner in the regional security realm in the capital cities of its important allies,” Lesser said. “Both Germany and the United States moved towards other regional actors.”

Ironically, Lesser added, the operation the United States was carrying out together with the YPG was being aided greatly by its access to İncirlik base in Turkey. Should the dispute widen further, he warned, this access might be withdrawn by Turkish authorities.