The already complicated Syrian landscape was given another dose of fuel as Turkish tanks rolled into Syria overrunning the town of Jarablus under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State (IS).
Western powers have long accused Turkey of not doing enough in the fight against IS and in tightening control of its porous border that has served them as a vital gateway. So why did Turkey suddenly intervene?
If the threat was solely IS, Turkey could have invaded years ago. However, Turkey’s real eyes were on curtailing the rapidly expanding territory under the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who simultaneously became United States’ (US) key ally in the battle against IS.
Hossam Abouzahr, the editor of the Atlantic Council’s Syria Source blog, told Kurdistan24, “Turkey has been planning this move for at least a year. The fighting between the Turkish and Kurdish forces shows just how serious Turkey is about stopping the Kurds from seizing control of northern Syria.”
Turkey was content as long as IS and YPG forces were locked fighting, the former was a natural way to keep Kurdish aspirations in check.
But with growing US-led coalition support and international recognition, YPG forces have quickly taken a large swathe of territory from IS, including Manbij, west of the Turkish Euphrates red line, and had their eyes set on creating a contiguous Kurdish autonomous region.
The Russian and US support to the Kurds was in contrast to Ankara’ frosty relations with these powers leaving Turkey isolated.
In addition to the loss of territory by its Syrian proxies, and the failed coup, Turkey embarked on a policy of rapprochement with Russia, Iran, Israel and the US.
John Cookson, Chief Correspondent of Arise News, told Kurdistan24 “Turkey has now turned to look East instead of West…An incursion into Syria to crush the Kurds plays well among his base in Istanbul.”
However, Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre told Kurdistan24 that although there is evidence of a Turkish compromise with Moscow in light of the recent rapprochement, “the Russians were clearly not expecting the scope of Turkey’s current offensive.”
Either way as history has shown, the West could betray the Kurds again.
The thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow was a stark warning to NATO and the Americans. Now in the quest to entice Ankara, US had to appease Turkey especially with regards to the Kurds.
According to Cookson, “If America has to choose between the Kurds and Turkey, the US will ultimately back Turkey” before adding that like the uprising in Iraqi in 1991, “the Americans will sell the Kurds out.”
For Paul, “Biden’s recent visit was aimed at building bridges. At the end of the day Turkey is a vital US strategic partner and long-time NATO ally. While the PYD has been an important partner for the US in Syria it is not comparable to the relationship with Turkey.”
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made clear that “Turkish forces will remain in Syria for as long as it takes to cleanse the border of Islamic State and other militants”.
However, Kurdish control west of Euphrates is one thing, and their large and well-entrenched control of the region east of the Euphrates is another.
According to Paul, not only could Turkey become bogged down in Syria but “the current operation is not going to help Turkey’s own Kurdish issue and it is likely to spread furthers enmity toward the Kurdish people in the region.”
However, for the US and its primary focus on defeating IS, the armed confrontation between Turkish and Kurdish forces is a major headache. It can tolerate a limited incursion to appease Ankara, but the boundaries are becoming ever murky. Pentagon warned Turkey to focus on IS and not the Kurdish forces. According to Washington, the YPG had retreated east of the Euphrates as promised but an unconvinced Yildrim vowed, “operations will continue until all threats to Turkish citizens have been eliminated.”
More importantly, there is now a sense of unease between the Kurds and US that would hamper operations against IS further south.
The US spent millions on training moderate forces who quickly failed against IS; hence, it has relied heavily on the Kurds. However, will the new development change the game again?
There are already signs that Turkey will accept a grand bargain to curtail Kurdish advances.
Regardless of any deal between these powers, the Kurds of Syria remain a key component of the Syrian calculus. Their new found autonomy and military might cannot be ignored. Not without wide-scale military intervention, which is a step far for the likes of Turkey and certainly for Syria.
First Published: Kurdistan 24
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc