Turkey's eyes on Tel Abyad

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened a third military operation into Syria, this time in the east. The mobilisation of his proxies and other measures make clear that Erdoğan wants it to be believed he means it.

The complication is that the intended target, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are the chosen partners of the United States-led coalition against Islamic State (ISIS), and U.S. soldiers are present in the area.

If we are on the brink of a collision between two NATO powers in Syria, the cause can be traced back to U.S. policy decisions. Having decreed in 2011 that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go, President Barack Obama was, first, paralysed by the spectre of Iraq from doing anything to implement this policy, and subsequently reversed course entirely as part of his diplomacy with Iran. This left Turkey, which had acted on Obama’s words and provided support to the anti-Assad rebellion, facing the crisis alone.

Obama was forced to intervene against ISIS in August 2014 after it began marching toward Iraqi Kurdistan, a zone regarded, by consensus in the United States, as one of the few successes of the Iraq war. The genocide against the Yazidis and the murder of Western captives intensified the political pressure to combat ISIS. The next month the intervention was, logically, extended to Syria, since ISIS held territory on both sides of a border.

The exigencies of that moment in the summer of 2014 were to contain ISIS’s territorial expansion and prevent further crimes against humanity. The United States, after initial hesitation, decided that this encompassed preventing the fall of the city of Kobani in northern Syria, and for good reason. The Kobani battle, which became an international media spectacle and test of wills, is the origin point of the U.S. approach in Syria, and the problems.

The force holding Kobani, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant force in the SDF, is the Syrian department of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally designated terrorist organisation that has fought a four-decade separatist war against the Turkish state.

While Turkey facilitated the arrival of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops to defend Kobani, Ankara objected to the U.S. dropping arms to the PYD/PKK. The United States did it anyway. Once Kobani was liberated, the United States continued its partnership with the PYD to roll back ISIS territorially, providing the PYD with weapons, money, training, intelligence, and (most importantly) air support.

The conceit of the U.S. policy was that it could make ISIS the priority and run a counter-terrorism war separate from the broader Syrian conflict. As the Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani has pointed out, it just does not work like that: “Whatever territory ISIS loses must go to a player in a zero-sum competition among all Syria’s other warring factions.”

ISIS had taken territory mostly from the rebels. The United States did not want to work with the rebels because it would mean taking on their anti-Assad cause. The PYD has always had good relations with pro-Assad forces, so was deemed an acceptable U.S. proxy. The result: the United States collaborated in the defeat of the Syrian rebellion and handed a third of Syria to the PYD. But that was only the beginning.

For Turkey, the creation of a PYD statelet is felt as an existentially alarming predicament. There have been two prior Turkish incursions into Syria to try to deal with this issue. In August 2016, after failing to convince the United States to restrain the PYD, Turkey initiated Operation Euphrates Shield to block its westward expansion. In January, the Turkish Operation Olive Branch cleared the PYD’s western pocket in Afrin and helped kick start a diplomatic “roadmap” over the flashpoint of Manbij, the last PYD-held zone west of the Euphrates.

Though joint U.S.-Turkey military patrols now take place around Manbij, the fundamental problems have remained. The United States viewed the Manbij concessions as a way of placating Turkey and securing Rojava, as the PYD called its areas. Turkey viewed the Manbij process as one that would eliminate PYD control in the city and replace it with Turkish allies, something that could then be replicated further east.

The U.S. announcement on Nov. 21 that it was setting up observation posts along the border between Rojava and Turkey was interpreted by the Turkish government, quite correctly, as a U.S. effort to close off this discussion by blocking any Turkish action into PYD-held zones east of the Euphrates. Without that possibility, Turkey’s leverage to press for any concessions beyond Manbij would be gone, hence Ankara’s behaviour this week.

Turkey clearly wants to increase the pressure on the United States in the discussions over Manbij and “other areas”. It is this reading that leads many to believe that Ankara is bluffing. Yet there are signs that an intervention is being prepared and there is a political logic in favour of it.

The rumours that Turkey had dismantled part of the border wall in preparation for an attack beginning near Ras al-Ayn were unfounded, but the Syrian National Army (SNA), the umbrella group for Turkey’s Arab dependencies in the Euphrates Shield area, has announced its intention to participate in a Turkish-led operation and moved troops into position.

If Turkey moves east of the Euphrates, it is likely to be a more limited operation than the prior two, carving out a buffer zone in the Arab-majority area between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. This would improve Turkey’s security picture and weaken Rojava significantly, breaking the continuous line of PYD control along the border. The demonstration that Turkey will not be deterred by U.S. tripwires and taking chunks of the areas Ankara and the United States are negotiating over would give Turkey a stronger bargaining hand.

As is traditional, the PYD has hedged, calling on its old allies in the regime coalition to defend it from Turkey. During the Olive Branch operation, Iran sent its Shia jihadists to assist the PYD, but they were ineffective against Turkey’s air strikes. It is unclear, with the U.S. presence in the east and a proven willingness to obliterate pro-Assad forces that approach its positions, what Assad, Iran, or Russia can do this time if Turkey really does attack.

As much sense as a Turkish intervention in eastern Syria makes sense theoretically, Erdoğan is fully aware that his government cannot afford the political cost of clashing with U.S. troops, to say nothing of the military humiliation that would ensue if such a collision occurred. For all the rhetoric, Erdoğan has been cautious on this matter, and has every reason to continue being so.

As ISIS’s so-called caliphate collapses, and the United States ostensibly turns toward containing Iran, the strategic imperative would seem to be U.S.-Turkey reconciliation and an end to the Washington’s maximalist commitment to the PYD. But the United States has, despite evident flaws, chosen a different course: an indefinite presence in northeastern Syria through the PYD, aiming to keep ISIS down and disrupt Iran’s regional ambitions.

The quid pro quo for the PYD continuing to serve as Washington’s anti-ISIS ground force is that the United States will defend at least the core PYD areas such as Qamishli and Kobani, a town that, for reasons explained above, has resonance for the Americans, too.

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