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Don’t count on Turkey to defeat ISIS in Syria

By Paul Iddon 28/8/2016
A Turkish tank near the border with the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani. AFP file photo.
A Turkish tank near the border with the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani. AFP file photo.
Turkey rapidly entered the Syrian conflict directly last Wednesday when its military overran the Islamic State (ISIS)-occupied border-town of Jarablus in support of 1,500 militiamen fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Not unlike its initial entry into the US-led campaign against ISIS in July 2015, Turkey is simultaneously striking ISIS and Kurdish forces, targeting the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) forces south of Jarablus with artillery and airstrikes as they advance on the ground against ISIS in that border area.  

Ankara has admitted that this operation is as much about stopping Kurdish advances in northwestern Syria as it is about pushing ISIS back from the remaining part of the northwestern Syrian border it occupies. It has long drawn its red line for the YPG at the Euphrates River, threatening to attack them if they advanced westward of Kobani. Turkey did, however, agree to permit a limited crossing of YPG forces who fought under the banner of the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition throughout the battle against ISIS in Manbij, which they won earlier this month.

Now Turkey is bombing those SDF forces north of Manbij and demanding that the YPG withdraw fully to the east bank of the Euphrates. The US is supporting Turkey in this operation. US Vice President Joseph Biden even warned the YPG on Wednesday that the US would withdraw its support for them in their war against ISIS if they did not pull their forces back across the Euphrates, as they had committed to doing in May when they began their aforementioned offensive against Manbij.

Turkey is a much more powerful and valued partner for the US than the YPG, which is purely an ad-hoc ally in the war against ISIS, and remains the only country in the Middle East with which the US has an official alliance. However, taking such a clear stance which overwhelmingly favors Turkey in this operation, instead of seeking to negotiate an agreeable settlement for both sides, means Washington is running the risk of alienating their only real ally on the ground against ISIS in Syria.

Washington should instead seek to emphasize its support for Ankara’s Jarablus offensive, provided its scope is limited to removing ISIS completely from Syria’s northwestern border. It should also demonstrate to the YPG that it’s not the only one who has to abide by red lines by openly compelling Turkey to operate only in the northwestern part of Syria, where it does not want the YPG, the 65-mile wide Jarablus-Azaz line. The northwestern Kurdish Afrin Canton should be off limits to the Turkish military, as should Kobani and Jazira Cantons in the northeast, so long as the YPG does not attack Turkey’s border from those territories.

To date all Turkey has proven is that it can facilitate the advance of 1,500 militiamen with heavy fire support a few miles south of its border. It hasn’t demonstrated that it possesses the ability to build a large Syrian Arab expeditionary force capable of capturing Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria. The SDF therefore remains the most competent allied force the Americans have against ISIS in Syria and the only feasible alternative to their failed train-and-equip program to build an anti-ISIS Syrian fighting force from scratch.

An escalation of these current clashes between Ankara and the YPG risks fatally compromising the fight against ISIS. The bulk of the remaining ISIS forces in Syria remain south of Syrian Kurdish territories in northeastern Syria and eastward of the Euphrates. If Turkey pursues all-out war between ISIS and the YPG, that would likely see it finish off the remaining militants along the border and then fight only the YPG in Syria's northeast. Crippling the YPG there would relieve the pressure on ISIS in Raqqa, militants which Turkey might not pursue as rigorously, or even at all, since they are not near its frontiers.

A US policy which risks seeing the only potent anti-ISIS force in Syria crippled, if not outright subdued, in exchange for a relatively small number of already isolated ISIS militants being removed from Syria’s northwestern border, is a very poor exchange. It is also a striking reminder that Turkey, and its allied Syrian militia forces, cannot be counted upon to fill the shoes of the YPG as Washington’s main ally on the ground in Syria.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


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Ben | 28/8/2016
To date no one can prove that Turkey has attacked ISIS in this latest land grab attempt, all we have are statements from the Turks. But they also admit there was no fight between their forces, the jihadists they back and ISIS. ISIS withdrew from jarablus and the surrounding areas without firing a single shot, nor did they boobytrap a singel building in Jarablus when they retreated! something they always do everywhere else! This move was NOT to root out ISIS from their border but save them from Kurdish forces who were heading towards jarablus! and to block Kurds further south
Cruncher | 28/8/2016
The kurdish should strengthen the main area and don't worry about ISIS. Seek a understanding with the Syrian regime and work with the Syrian regime only. The US has shown who they are allied to. Most likely in the not to distant future there will be a a free independent Kurdistan. One thing at a time.
Swiss | 28/8/2016
Russia and Iran have really good reputation when it comes to standing by their allies, that's why their influence keeps growing. Turks have the worst reputation and track record of them all! no one trusts them. Arabs have a similar reputation. The Americans have enough bad track record to be categorised as unreliable, if they go through with this and abandon such a reliable and effective force as YPG it will leave a permanent stain on their reputation.
R. Lake | 28/8/2016
Kurds shouldn't worry because the russians have drooled over getting syrian kurds to change alliance for a long time. They're keeping a low profile for now but I think they'll gladly fill in the vacuum the americans leave in rojava. they'll gain a formidable ally that will be a game changer in syria and beyond. and erdogan can't say or do anything to harm relations again because they gave him permission to enter jareblus. Like the author said as long as ypg doesn't attack turkey from rojava turkeys hand will be tied.
Amanj | 28/8/2016
Turks are very famous for shooting themselves in the foot. Once again the Turks have given the Kurds more justification and emotional ammunition to become more determined to escalate the fight for an independent Kurdistan in Turkey and elsewhere. Since its inception after the First World War, Turkey has been entirely occupied with crushing the Kurds; they banned their own Turkish people from having access to other cultures and languages just to justify crushing the Kurdish language. Sulaiman Demirel said on an Arab TV station that the greatest victory for Turkey since its creation was capturing Abdulla Ocalan - WOW. The interviewer wondered if that was the greatest achievement then what else has Turkey achieved then!!! Let me say this loud and clear: Turkey can never separate Kobane from Efrin. Have they forgotten that Kurds can and will reach Efrin through Kurdistan in Turkey sooner or later. Maybe the Turks believe they have won the battle in Jarablus (A CHARADE) but definitely they have not won the war. There are still many other rounds to be played. Just remember in 2030, Kurds will outnumber Turks as an ethnic group. What will Turks do then? Kill all Kurds!!! A final word: Kurds will never disappear; Kurds will keep fighting for their rights in every way possible; Turkey will be the biggest loser at the end of this game unless it sobers up and learns from history. Kurds helped create Turkey and they can play a key role in destroying it. So let the wise men and women (Kurds and Turks) sit at a round table and save the coming generations from more misery and live happily forever.

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