Syria offensive exposes Turkey’s disastrous counter-terrorism policy

Turkey's problematic counter-terror efforts in northeast Syria have left it using detained Islamic State (ISIS) fighters to threaten Europe and possibly increasing the Kurdish threat along its border while losing the support of key allies like the United States. 

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu told reporters on Monday that Turkey would return captured ISIS members to their countries of origin even if those countries had revoked their citizenship.

Blaise Misztal, a fellow at U.S. think tank the Hudson Institute, saw Soylu’s statement as akin to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's repeated threat to “open the gates” and let refugees flood into Europe. 

“It’s hard to see how that is anything more than an extension of the sort of blackmail that Turkey has been engaging in on Syrian refugees,” Misztal told Ahval in a podcast. “This is really a veiled threat against European countries.”  

Also on Monday, Turkey demanded Germany take back 20 ISIS members. 

Some 2,000 foreign ISIS fighters and 11,000 of their family members are being held in Kurdish-controlled detention camps in northeast Syria. Soylu also said Turkey was holding 1,200 ISIS detainees in Turkish prisons and had captured 287 ISIS members in northeast Syria. 

Launched on Oct. 9, Turkey’s Syria operation has killed at least 250 people, mostly Kurds, and displaced some 300,000 people, leading to fears of ethnic cleansing by prominent observers, including former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. 

Turkey’s main military objective is decimating the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency in Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, as well as Turkey. 

Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın said on Monday that a considerable blow had been dealt to the YPG and called on Western allies for support. 

“Turkey expects its allies, be it the U.S., EU or any other country, to assume a clear stance against all kinds of terror,” said Kalın. “Recognising the PKK as a terror group on paper is not enough. What you practice is important.”

U.S. forces visited the YPG in Qamishli, in northeast Syria, on Saturday and a source told Agence France-Presse that the United States planned to set up a military post there. The Wall Street Journal quoted U.S. officials as saying a U.S. convoy on Sunday saw artillery strikes landing close to its position near the town of Tel Tamr where fighting had intensified between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

This followed a recent incident when Turkish forces fired on U.S. positions in Kobani. Also on Sunday, the aid group Free Burma Rangers said one of its workers was killed and another wounded by a Turkish drone strike near Tal Tamr on Sunday.

“What the United States wanted was to avoid a confrontation with Turkish troops, it did not necessarily want to end the counter-terrorism partnership with the SDF,” said Misztal, who sees frictions between U.S. troops and Turkish and Turkish-backed forces lingering and even increasing as long as the U.S. mission in northeast Syria remains ambiguous. 

President Donald Trump has said U.S. forces will be staying in Syria to protect Kurd-controlled oil fields, but U.S. forces have continued the fight against ISIS. After the U.S. killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last week, Bloomberg reported that the United States was looking into possible Turkish intelligence links to ISIS, particularly as the Turkish military has observation posts not far from Baghdadi’s hideout. 

Turkey’s focus on the PKK-YPG has left it blind to other forms of terrorism, said Misztal, pointing to an oft-ignored concern in regards to terrorism in northern Syria: what might happen to al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group with links to Turkey, once it is pushed out of Idlib by the forces of President Bashar Assad. “Where will they go? And what will (HTS’) relationship with Turkey look like?” he wondered. 

Misztal also cited reporting that ISIS cells still exist in Turkey today, that thousands of foreign fighters traveled through Turkey to join ISIS, and that Turkish intelligence sent weapons to rebels in Syria.  

“ISIS is a major national security threat for Turkey,” Yusuf Erim, political analyst for Turkish state broadcaster TRT World, told Ahval. "While many have tried to downplay Turkey's contributions in the fight against the terror group, the truth is Turkey has neutralised more ISIS terrorists than any other country.”

State-run Anadolu news agency said Turkey had killed 3,500 ISIS terrorists and arrested 5,500. Yet the annual U.S. State Department country report on Turkey, released on Friday, warned that it remained a transit point for foreign fighters and could serve as a corridor to replenish ISIS. 

The Turkish presidency condemned the report for not mentioning the SDF or YPG, and presidential adviser Fahrettin Altun announced early Tuesday that Turkey had captured the sister of ISIS leader Baghdadi. 

“There’s a certain myopia in the Turkish government about who’s really a terrorist,” said Misztal, pointing out that Baghdadi was killed in Idlib province, which is controlled by HTS. 

This shows the moral bankruptcy, said Misztal, of Turkey’s argument that it is laser-focused on the YPG and terrorism. Now, instead of having its ally, the United States, partnering with the YPG, Turkey faces the prospect of the Syrian Kurdish militia controlled by less friendly governments in Moscow and Damascus. 

“You’re not going to see Syria and Russia really want to stamp out the YPG in a way Turkey would want to,” he said, pointing out that Russia and Syria both made common cause with the PKK against Turkey in the 1990s. “Sometime down the road, they’re probably going to be more willing to arm the YPG, more willing to support the PKK inside Turkey, than the U.S. ever was.”

Already, SDF Commander Mazloum Kobani is now sitting at the negotiating table with the United States and Russia. "Turkey is not completely happy as there are still YPG elements in the region," said Erim, adding that Ankara reserves the right to resume military operations as needed.

Misztal pointed out that Erdoğan supported rebels seeking to topple Assad for years, and still supports Syrian opposition forces like HTS in Idlib. 

“It stands to reason that Assad will want to pay him back in kind, and have his own proxy force that he can deploy against Turkey,” said Misztal. “I think in the long-term Turkey is making its situation on the Syrian-Turkish border worse. It’s creating the conditions to enable the very thing it wants to prevent, which is the further strengthening of the PKK.”