As Turkey Attacks Kurds in Syria, U.S. Is on the Sideline
As Turkey Attacks Kurds in Syria, U.S. Is on the Sideline

As Turkey Attacks Kurds in Syria, U.S. Is on the Sideline


This Monday, Turkish troops advanced to northwest Syria targeting on Kurdish militia. Turkey considers Kurdish militia as terrorists that create serious threats to its territorial sovereignty.

Turkey’s military incursion against Kurds was apparently with the assent of Russia, even Russian officials denied it. Turkey chose to ignore the protests of the United States, which claimed that Turkey should focus on the war against the Islamic State. In fact, Kurds not only have an important part in the campaign in opposition to the Islamic State but also are America’s closest allies in the war against the Islamic State.

Turkey’s operation brings the interests of the United States and Russia into the areas of conflicts. The United States working with the Kurds as partners when fighting the Islamic State is always the inherent conflict, as the United States faces the risk of indirect and even direct conflict with Turkey. Russia, on the contrary, joined Turkey in accusing the United States of supporting the Kurds and aggravating the situation in Syria.

Although Turkey’s operations have been limited to areas around Afrin so far, there are some concerns on whether Turkey will go further to other areas in the future.


As Turkey Attacks Kurds in Syria, U.S. Is on the Sideline

WASHINGTON — When President Trump met with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the United Nations last September, he embraced him as a friend and declared, “We’re as close as we’ve ever been.” Five months later, Turkey is waging an all-out assault against Syrian Kurds, America’s closest allies in the war against the Islamic State.

The Turkish offensive, carried out over the protests of the United States but with the apparent assent of Russia, marks a perilous new phase in relations between two NATO allies — bringing their interests into direct conflict on the battlefield. It lays bare how much leverage the United States has lost in Syria, where its single-minded focus has been on vanquishing Islamist militants.

As Turkish troops advanced Monday on the Kurdish town of Afrin, in northwest Syria, the White House warned Turkey not to take its eye off the campaign against the Islamic State. But it stopped short of rebuking Turkey, and acknowledged its security concerns about the Kurds, whom Turkey considers terrorists and a threat to its territorial sovereignty.

The inherent conflict of the United States using the Kurds as its on-the-ground partner in fighting the Islamic State could be overlooked as long as that group remained a threat. But with the militants now in retreat, the White House is groping for a way to maintain relations with the Kurdish fighters without further alienating the Turks.

The Trump administration’s response has been to help the Kurds build a border security force in northeast Syria, ostensibly to guard against the resurgence of the Islamic State. But that has only antagonized the Turks, who view it as a staging ground for a future insurgency against their homeland.

“The U.S. has tried to walk a very fine line in Syria,” said Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. counterterrorism agent who is now chairman of the Soufan Group. But, he said, “as the battlefield shrinks in Syria, the line has become near impossible to maintain.”

Mr. Soufan said the United States “would likely have to either dramatically scale back its support of the Kurdish rebels — which would be seen as yet another U.S. betrayal of the few groups that have consistently supported and helped the U.S. in Syria and Iraq — or risk indirect and even direct conflict with Turkey, a fellow NATO member.”

The administration tried to stave off either of those scenarios with carefully worded statements by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Mr. Tillerson acknowledged that Turkey has “legitimate concerns about terrorists crossing the border,” while Mr. Mattis praised Turkey for allowing the United States to use its air base at Incirlik to fly missions against the Islamic State. Ms. Sanders urged Turkey on Monday to use “restraint in its military actions and rhetoric,” and limit the scope and duration of the operation.

As it has so often in Syria, however, the United States seemed mostly a bystander. And as it has receded, Russia has filled the vacuum, gaining influence and rehabilitating its relationship with Turkey.

It is widely assumed in Ankara that the Turkish government received a green light from Russia to launch the attack, even as Russian officials denied it. Mr. Erdogan said Monday that Turkey had an agreement with Russia on the operation.

“Russia is managing the tempo of this operation,” said Metin Gurcan, a security analyst and columnist for Al-Monitor. Turkey’s senior security officials had visited Moscow the day before it began.

Though Turkish forces, together with fighters of the Free Syrian Army, captured high ground and three villages near Afrin on Monday, military analysts said the campaign was dependent on Russia’s agreement to open up the airspace to Turkish jets.

Russia controls Syrian airspace in the region west of the Euphrates River, which includes Afrin, while the United States controls the skies east of the Euphrates.

For Mr. Erdogan, who is seeking the support of nationalists before presidential elections this year or next, the Afrin operation is politically vital. He has criticized the United States over its support of the Syrian Kurd militias, which he says are allied with the outlawed P.K.K., a Kurdish militant group that has been waging a separatist struggle in Turkey for the last three decades.

On Monday, he took another swipe at the United States, saying, “Our country does not envy the soil of others.”

“When the operation achieves its aims, it would be over,” Mr. Erdogan told a group of businessmen in the presidential palace. “Some, or America, are asking us about the duration. And I am asking America, ‘Was your timing determined in Afghanistan?’ When the job is done. We are not eager to stay. We know when to pull out. And we do not care to have permission from anyone to do this.”

Russia has joined Turkey in accusing the United States of encouraging the Kurds and aggravating the situation in Syria. “This is either a lack of understanding of the situation or an absolutely conscious provocation,” said the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

The Turkish assault underscores the deepening ties between Russia and Turkey — a relationship that has rebounded from the nadir of November 2015, when the Turks shot down a Russian fighter plane over Syria.

Analysts say Russia has good reasons to bless the Turkish attack. It stands to gain by sowing discord between the United States and its allies and, more broadly, by extending diplomatic influence in the region. They also speculate that Turkey, in return for Moscow’s forbearance, has agreed to turn a blind eye to Russian and Syrian attacks on rebels in Idlib Province, who are nominally allied with Turkey against the Syrian government.

The United States has taken some steps to reassure Mr. Erdogan. It stopped supplying heavy weapons to the Kurds, now that the operation to retake the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa is finished. But administration officials said they were determined to continue their relationship with the Kurds because of their effectiveness in fighting militants.

In recent weeks, senior American officials have talked about the need to re-establish security in northern Syria by installing local security forces that reflect the demographics of those areas before the civil war. That would require the return of tens of thousands of Arabs who fled Syria during the fighting.

Mr. Tillerson outlined the strategy in a speech last week in which he said the United States would keep troops in Syria for the foreseeable future.

“We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria,” he said. “ISIS presently has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.”

Critics, however, questioned whether the administration had the diplomatic muscle, political commitment or military staying power to put that strategy into effect. Even now, some noted, many of its statements are still narrowly focused on the fight against the Islamic State and do not take account of the common interest Turkey and the United States have in resisting Russia, Iran and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

The United States, some analysts said, needs to make a better case to the Turkish government for why the American alliance with the Syrian Kurds will most likely outlast the war against the Islamic State.

“We told the Turks that the Kurds were temporary, tactical, and transactional to defeat ISIS,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. “Now we need them to contain Iran.”

He said the administration was sending mixed messages to the Turks, which antagonized Mr. Erdogan and made it impossible for him to turn a blind eye to the links between the Syrian Kurds and the P.K.K.

“The whole purpose of this is to split the Russians from the Syrians by saying we’re going to stay on to force a political solution in Syria,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “We have a seeming inability, in our various public announcements, to send this message to the Turks.”

So far, the Turkish operations have been limited to targets around Afrin, which lies about 25 miles north of Aleppo and about 75 miles from the main Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates River. These areas are of less concern to the United States.

The question, said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies, is, “Once Turkey gets control of that area, will they push into the other areas?” That could bring Turkey into conflict with the main force of Kurds, and even potentially, with American troops.


: New York Times, Mark Landler and Carlotta Gall, Jan 22, 2018. Photo credit to Sedat Suna, European Pressphoto Agency.

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