How to solve east Euphrates issues without war

Following the sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria, all eyes are on Turkey, which is expected to announce a military operation against the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Washington’s main ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria. 

YPG fighters have been well-trained and well-armed by U.S. forces and have connections to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish government for more than 30 years and is seen as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. 

Any Turkish military operation against the YPG will surely be costly in terms of both casualties and international political capital. Yet there may be a way to defeat the YPG without a serioU.S. incursion. 

It’s not yet clear how Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw the U.S. military from Syria is going to play out. Perhaps not even the U.S. knows, though the withdrawal is expected to take up to 100 days. 

Even if we assume there will be no more American resignations, following the departures of Defence Secretary James Mattis and U.S. anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, many of the American officials responsible for the Syrian withdrawal will try to shape it to their own ends. 

Turkey is being prudent in patiently waiting to act in response to U.S. actions. Washington had been dragging its feet in regards to the Manbij roadmap, which involved expelling local YPG fighters. 

Keeping this in mind, Erdoğan decided to postpone Turkey’s planned military operation east of the Euphrates until the situation becomes clearer. During the 100-day period of U.S. withdrawal, Turkey has time to consider every possibility. 

The most important issue for Turkey is the manner in which the YPG will resist the Turkish army. Since they are known to cooperate closely with the PKK, they will likely defend themselves in the same way. Turkey’s military has a wealth of experience against the PKK, and has learned over the decades just how stubbornly they fight for their cause. Thus, the YPG will be no push-over. 

But there are two crucial differences: the first is that the United States has provided the YPG with truckload after truckload of arms and ammunition, as well as training. The second is that the battlefield is different. When the Turkish army fights the PKK there are fewer enemies around, largely because they are fighting on Turkish soil. 

Sometimes there are traitors among the civilians who help the PKK, but for the most part the army is in friendly territory. In Syria, the Turkish military is in unfamiliar territory -- a hostile environment. 

Turkish troops will have to battle it out in unfamiliar streets among people whose language they don’t know. The YPG will use the civilian population as a human shield, while Turkish troops will be required to follow the rules of engagement outlined in the Geneva Conventions.

Still, the Turkish army is the second largest in NATO and has considerable counter-terror experience. It is thus unlikely they would lose to the YPG in battle, so Ankara should be most concerned with carrying out the operation with the minimum number of casualties.

A tank, part of a convoy of Turkish military vehicles is pictured near the rebel-held northern Syrian border town of al-Rai on December 25, 2018. Aref TAMMAWI / AFP
A tank, part of a convoy of Turkish military vehicles is pictured near the rebel-held northern Syrian border town of al-Rai on December 25, 2018. Aref TAMMAWI / AFP

The YPG has an estimated 60-70,000 fighters, of which some 30,000 are well trained. In military academies they teach that in order to successfully attack a defensive army on its own turf, one must employ twice as much fighting power. This means Turkey must enter Syria with a force larger than all of the YPG. 

In addition, Turkey has now committed to and taken responsibility for fighting ISIS, which is based far from its borders.  It’s not yet clear how much logistical support Washington will give Turkey in this endeavour.

In the YPG fight, Turkish forces will have a clear advantage due to their air power. Though the YPG has anti-aircraft weapons, thanks to the United States, and they will surely use them. 

Yet the YPG is likely counting on the international community to apply more pressure to Turkey than its own fighting capacity. Representatives of the YPG in European capitals have already been lobbying these governments to put pressure on Turkey not to invade.

Turkey can’t expect absolute support from Iran or Russia either, though Ankara has entered partnerships with these two countries in several areas. How much support each country provides to Turkey in Syria will be determined by their own national interests.

When the YPG ousted ISIS from Hasakah and Raqqa in 2015, they took over the cities and prevented the native Arabic and Turkmen populations from returning to their homes. They burned their fields and their homes and resettled Kurds from other regions there. 

In fact, not only did they prevent Arabs, Turkmen, and Syriac Christians from returning, they also prevented those Kurds who did not support the YPG from returning, according to a report by Amnesty International published in 2015.  

Some countries worry that Turkey is now envisioning another ethnic makeover in the areas previously remade by the YPG. It would be a great strategy for peace if Turkey was to announce that it had no such intentions, and wished only to give recently “Kurd-ified” settlements back to their original owners. 

Turkey could announce to the international community, that if everything were carried out according to this plan, there would be no need for military intervention. The only opposition would be from the YPG themselves, which would isolate them on the international stage and Turkey could realize its goals without the need for war. 

This would mean less conflict and destruction, fewer Turkish and Kurdish deaths and improved international standing for Ankara. Such a gain in reputation could open the door for Turkey to play a more important role in the Middle East.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.