A Kurdish member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Al Hol countryside. Photo: AFP
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recently made another gain against the Islamic State (ISIS) which may have placed the foremost group in its ranks, Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), where the Turks have long feared them being: West of the Euphrates River and over Ankara’s “red-line”. Rather than attempting to directly come at Jarablus from over the Euphrates to its east the SDF instead opted to go all the way south of Sarrin where they kicked ISIS out of the Tishreen Dam and crossed west from there. About 50 miles south of the Syrian-Turkish border.
This could well constitute the greatest victory the YPG have had over ISIS since they forced them out of the northeastern border town of Gire Spi (Tal Abyad) over the summer and subsequently closed-off all of the northeastern border to them.
Previous attempts by the YPG to cross the Euphrates to Jarablus to try and prevent ISIS from firing mortars across the river at villages in the Kobani canton have been prevented by Turkish fire. Now, while west of the Euphrates, the SDF/YPG are in a position to apply further pressure on ISIS, further carve-up their terror state and, in the process, enhance the security of their own territories.
Turkey’s long-range T-155 artillery guns, which can devastate targets over the horizon, are not capable of stopping the YPG from establishing a presence west of the Euphrates and south of the 68-mile northwestern Azaz-Jarablus border-line. Rather than make a drive at Jarablus and assault it from the south the SDF are advancing to take the town of Manbij from the group. A town that sits approximately 35 miles south of Jarablus and has been a hub for ISIS’s illicit artifact trade, a significant source of that group’s revenue. It also sits on important routes which will further hinder ISIS’s movement and completely cut Raqqa off from the already distant northwestern border.
During the ISIS offensive against Gire Spi the U.S. gave close air support to the YPG. This deeply frustrated Turkey who was against that YPG advance and denounced it accordingly. It seems, despite supporting Ankara’s stance on preventing any YPG presence west of the Euphrates, that the U.S. is already softening up Manbij with air strikes in anticipation that the SDF will soon seize it. According to the U.S. Department of Defense website 11 air strikes were carried out against ISIS positions around that town, hitting tactical units, fighting positions and roads used by the group.
Successfully taking Manbij would give the SDF a very substantial foothold west of the Euphrates while simultaneously staying clear of the border where they would likely incur Turkish fire. While an assault on Jarablus from the south may be on the cards in the future (one SDF fighter was photographed spraying graffiti on a wall in Tishreen Dam which read, “Get ready Jarablus, we are coming”) the group likely knows the risks involved and should accordingly continue to play their cards shrewdly in order to avoid directly clashing with the Turks. While Turkey has the means to target them with its air force (which possesses stand-off missiles that can be launched at targets by Turkish jets which wouldn’t even have to enter Syrian air space) it is unlikely to do so if that group keeps its distance from the border. The SDF should do so and consolidate its tactical gains and transform them into a strategic ones by ensuring ISIS’s remaining forces in the northwest cannot possibly move to the east of the Euphrates.
Indeed it seems the Turks want to avoid a clash provided the SDF keep their distance. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded to the initial reports by reiterating Ankara’s firm opposition to having Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates but added that only Arab forces within the SDF have crossed over to date, implying that Ankara tolerates the move. The U.S. has long hoped some Arab force (such as the Free Syrian Army which, incidentally, has fought alongside the YPG for over a year now) could be used as a proxy to remove the ISIS presence along the Azaz-Jarablus line and close off that groups last access point to the outside world. Washington has been frustrated by its inability to either locate or establish a force capable of doing so and has also been frustrated by the fact that Ankara has yet to divert the necessary forces needed to seal off its own side of that porous border.
For now however tangible gains are being made to Jarablus’s south at the direct expense of ISIS. Yet another Kurdish contribution to that terrorist groups long overdue demise.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.