Earlier this week, we highlighted a story that’s flown (both figuratively and literally) under the radar.
Namely the Turkish military’s airstrikes on Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq. You’re encouraged to read the entire post here: One Man’s Kurd Is Another Man’s “Terrorist”: Turkey Bombs US-Allied Forces In Syria, Iraq.
The bottom line is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not enamored with the fact that Washington’s closest, not to mention most reliable, allies in the fight against ISIS are the Kurdish YPG in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq.
To be sure, you can posit all manner of conspiracy theories with regard to Erdogan’s ISIS connections – some of which have merit, some don’t. But the story here isn’t Erdogan trying to covertly protect Islamic State positions. The story is Erdogan trying to wipe out the Kurds.
See, Erdogan doesn’t differentiate between the YPG and the PKK (the Kurdish militants with whom Ankara is engaged in a long-standing war). And indeed, it’s not entirely clear that he should differentiate, except for the fact that the YPG is primarily focused on ousting ISIS from eastern Syria and not on usurping the regime in Turkey. You’ll also recall that the YPG formed an alliance with Syrian Arabs in 2015 – the combined forces are called the SDF or, Syrian Democratic Forces. That would be the same SDF that accidentally became a (literal) victim of their own success when a coalition airstrike they called in accidentally killed 18 friendlies earlier this month.
Erdogan, still riding high after his referendum win, launched a series of airstrikes on YPG and Peshmerga positions earlier this week. One of the regions hit was Sinjar, in northern Iraq. That would be the same Sinjar that was liberated from ISIS back in December of 2015 to much fanfare and international media attention, and the same Sinjar where the Yazidi religious minority was mercilessly persecuted. Apparently, something like three dozen YPG fighters and five Peshmerga were killed in the Turkish strikes.
Members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units inspect the damage at their headquarters after it was hit by Turkish airstrikes in Mount Karachok near Malikiya, Syria, April 25, 2017. (photo by REUTERS/ Rodi Said)
Of course Erdogan says he was targeting the PKK, but in reality he’s just targeting “Kurds.” And that didn’t go over particularly well with the US which, you’re reminded, flies combat sorties from Incirlik, the Turkish airbase.
“We are very concerned, deeply concerned that Turkey conducted air strikes earlier today in northern Syria as well as northern Iraq without proper co-ordination either with the United States or the broader global coalition to defeat IS,” US state department spokesman Mark Toner said after the strikes, adding that Washington has “expressed those concerns to the government of Turkey directly.”
On Thursday we learned that the US intends to “solve” this problem by deploying troops on the border with Turkey to “monitor” the situation. Here’s Reuters:
A commander of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Friday U.S. forces would begin monitoring the situation along the Syria-Turkey frontier after cross-border fire between the Turkish military and YPG this week.
The monitoring had not yet begun, but the forces would report to senior U.S. commanders, Sharvan Kobani told Reuters after meeting U.S. military officials in the town of Darbasiya next to the Turkish border.
The officials had toured Darbasiya which was hit by Turkish artillery fire earlier in the week.
Since Tuesday the YPG and Turkish forces have traded artillery fire along the Syria-Turkey border.
Turkey’s bombardment of YPG positions complicates the U.S.-backed fight against Islamic State in Syria, where the YPG has been a crucial partner on the ground for Washington.
The YPG is a key component of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighting groups involved in a campaign to drive Islamic State out of its Syria stronghold, Raqqa.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said on Friday U.S. troops were deployed along the border.
“We continue to urge all the parties involved to focus on the common enemy which is ISIS (Islamic State),” he told reporters.
Right, so basically Erdogan risks killing US spec ops if he continues to bomb YPG positions and, contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, that is not something he wants to risk doing.
That’s not to say Ankara won’t in fact risk it. It’s just to say that Erdogan probably doesn’t want to find himself in a situation where he’s just killed American troops that the entire world knew were in the vicinity (maybe he could call in a favor from Turkish agent Mike Flynn if he pisses the Pentagon off).
That said, Erdogan isn’t one to back down or otherwise exercise prudence, especially when speaking in front of state-run media, which is why we got the following highly amusing soundbites from a speech to the general assembly of the All Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association delivered on Saturday:
The fight against terrorist organizations is not an option for us, but a must. We will not tolerate any terrorist group.
Turkey knows what to do and when to do it; we may come [to Sinjar] overnight all of a sudden.
Do not toy with this nation. Everybody will see it.
You can watch the entire spectacle here.
Erdogan will meet Trump for the first time next month. He says he’ll try and convince Washington that the SDF’s services are not needed when it comes to overrunning the ISIS capital Raqqa.
“Why are we asking for help from terrorist organisations? We are here,” Erdogan said at an energy conference in Istanbul this week. “Turkey, coalition forces led by the United States and the Free Syrian Army all together can wipe them (Islamic State) out. This is not a difficult thing for us,” he added.
“I believe we can achieve this and I will tell this to Trump.”
To be sure, the Free Syrian Army is anything but a stable force comprised of reliable partners. But what’s important to note here is that the very last thing Ankara wants to see is the SDF – and by extension, the YPG – come out of this fight emboldened. Basically, he’s trying to sideline them altogether.
The bottom line is the same as it ever was: no one knows what tomorrow will bring for Syria and as the above cited Erdogan quotes make clear, no one knows what the future holds for Iraq either.