Yaşar Yakış
Jan 26 2018

What if a Turkish attack on Manbij produces U.S. casualties?

The Turkish army has finally launched its highly publicised military operation, dubbed ‘Olive Branch’, in the northern Syrian district of Afrin. Olives are grown extensively in the area; that may be one of the reasons for the choice of the name. Another reason may be its connotation of peace; offering peace to the Kurds of the region after clearing the area of fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Before Turkey’s military action, Damascus proposed to the Kurds that they should turn away from the United States and let the Syrian army deploy in Afrin rather than the Turks. The Kurds initially rejected this proposal, but eventually they reached an agreement and the first Syrian detachment was supposed to arrive in Afrin on Thursday. This move changes the nature of the confrontation. Turkey will now be facing the Syrian army in addition to YPG fighters. Prudent military operational planners should have taken into account such unpleasant potential surprises.

Another deal was negotiated between Turkey and Russia. According to that deal, Turkey agreed to stop its support for al Qaeda-linked opposition factions in Idlib and not consider Syrian army operations in Idlib as a violation of their de-escalation agreement. This may become, at the same time, a step in the thawing of relations between Ankara and Damascus. Again according to this deal, Russia would withdraw its military police from Afrin city centre to avoid accidental casualties among the Russians.

Turkey launched its operation after this deal was sealed. The first week of the operations does not give a sense of how it may evolve. Now that the die is cast, the parties will probably focus their efforts on damage control.

The United States, which was either turning a deaf ear to Turkey’s insistent demands for not arming the Kurds in Syria or responding with unconvincing explanations, is now taking belated steps to persuade Turkey to confine the operation to Afrin alone and try to minimise collateral damage to civilians. It hastily dispatched Deputy Under Secretary of State Jonathan Cohen to Ankara.

In the first part of his meeting, Cohen discussed with his Turkish counterpart cooperation in judicial matters, as it is indirectly connected with Turkish-U.S. relations in general. There are two important judicial problems between Turkey and the United States. One is the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania and is regarded by Turkey as the mastermind behind the 2016 failed military coup. The other is, a court case in the United States, which involves a Turkish gold trader of Iranian origin, Reza Zarrab, and state-run Turkish bank, Halkbank. Both files are extremely sensitive and the United States may use them as a threat or a quid pro quo for an important concession in the Turkish-U.S. contention over Syria.

Turkey vowed emphatically that, after Afrin, its operation would expand to Manbij and to the east of the River Euphrates. It announced this at the outset, probably in order to force the United States to make a choice between a NATO ally and a non-state actor.

The United States may justify its continued support for the YPG by the important role the latter has played so far in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS). The de facto ISIS capital Raqqa could not have been seized without the efforts of the YPG Kurdish fighters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a person who likes to take risks. He may stick to his initial statement and expand the operation to Manbij and even to the east of River Euphrates. If this happens, it will not turn, of course, into a war between the two NATO allies. Turkish soldiers are not expected to deliberately target U.S. soldiers but, in a war, casualties are part of the game. Even a few casualties from either side may leave indelible scars on bilateral relations, with negative consequences for future relations between these two NATO allies.  Avoiding confrontation is a duty for both.