Syrian soldiers during clashes with ISIS in Palmyra on May 17, 2015. AFP Photo.
Turkey has called on the US to meet two preconditions in return for its participation in the liberation from Islamic State (ISIS) of the northwestern Syrian town of Manbij. The two proposals put forward aptly demonstrate how the Turkish government’s monomaniacal obsession with containing the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) invariably renders it incapable of offering logical solutions for combating ISIS.
Their demands – put forward by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Washington last week – basically boil down to the US having the SDF halt its current advance on Manbij and calling on the non-Kurdish Arabs and Turkmen split from the group, which would effectively break it up.
Then, it would provide support, including direct air support, to some of the questionable groups Turkey has been backing in Syria’s northwest against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. A border area occupied by Islamists which include Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, the two most infamous and notorious Islamist groups in Syria. Which would essentially pit the US directly against that regime and risk a clash with its Kremlin supporter while possibly even enabling jihadis in that area to gain more ground.
Since they were formed in October 2015, the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have successfully merged with local tribesmen and representatives from various different non-Kurdish communities in northeastern Syria. Dismantling the SDF and undoing these successful endeavors ahead of an upcoming offensive against Manbij would be the equivalent of demanding an army to shoot itself in the foot before marching forward into battle.
Manbij is located on the west side of the Euphrates River south of the Jarablus-Azaz line, which Turkey has declared its “red line” in Syria. The SDF has a presence in that area since crossing from the Tishreen Dam last December. Capturing Manbij would give it a greater foothold in that area and would further cut off ISIS from the outside world.
If the US abides by Turkey’s preconditions it will more or less guarantee that Syria’s northwest border remains open and that many Islamist groups can still funnel in recruits and weapons. Doing this while simultaneously handicapping a force as effective as the SDF at this stage in the counter-ISIS campaign would be far too costly and recklessly risky.
Even if Turkey agrees to assist the coalition’s anti-ISIS efforts after its preconditions vis-à-vis the SDF are met in good faith there is little it can do apart from close its own side of the border. It is unlikely to send its ground forces into Jarablus to clear out ISIS or Nusra from elsewhere in that strip of border territory, never mind Manbij. It is also unlikely to even contribute additional airpower against ISIS since Ankara clearly doesn’t want to risk sending its jets into Syrian airspace in case the Russians avenge the downing of their warplane last November by shooting down a Turkish F-16 or two.
So, fundamentally, not only is Turkey’s willingness to contribute substantial resources to the fight against ISIS in question, its very capability to do so is also in question.
The SDF remains the US’s most concrete and reliable ally on the ground in Syria. Instead of continuously placating Turkey the US should remain firm that its own red-line in Syria are firmly denying a foothold anywhere in that war-torn country to either ISIS or Nusra, which would require their removal from the northwest. Something the SDF can do much more effectively than if the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) had done so itself.
Washington could placate the Turks by setting preconditions for the SDF. Namely that its incursion into the northwest is an ad-hoc one aimed at removing ISIS and Nusra and not an endeavor, however tempting, to link up the remaining disjointed canton of Afrin to Kobani through the Jarablus-Azaz line.
That’s a solution which has a chance of succeeding: The SDF is a tried and tested battle-hardened force with the resolve and the capability to neutralize these jihadis. Its continued contributions to this essential fight should not be taken for granted or, even worse, compromised.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.