Security Exchange News

Turkey's War Games

17 January 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced an imminent offensive on the northern Syrian city of Afrin, which is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). A significant military force has amassed at the border and sporadic clashes with YPG fighters have already been reported, along with shelling from Turkish troops from positions in Idlib province.

Erdogan’s decision to renew Operation Euphrates Shield, which officially ended in March 2017, comes after the US-led coalition announced plans to create a 30,000-strong border force in northern and eastern Syria. The move sparked anger from Erdogan and the Turkish government and threatens to further undermine the fragile alliance with Washington. The new force will be largely comprised of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of opposition fighters dominated by the YPG. Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish rights and autonomy in south-eastern Turkey since the 1980s. Erdogan has accused the US of working to form a “terror army” on its’ southern border. “Accepting this state of affairs is absolutely not possible,” said the president’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin.

The US has supported the SDF since late-2015, supplying the group with weapons and logistical support as it attempted to recapture territory from the Islamic State (IS). This culminated in the capture of Raqqa from IS last October, after which Erdogan tried to get a guarantee from the Trump administration that it would halt the supply of weapons to the Kurds. “Our discomfort regarding the provision of weapons to the YPG was conveyed to Mr Trump once again... Trump very clearly said he had given instructions to not provide weapons to the YPG,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara in November. “We welcome the promise of not providing weapons to the YPG, and want to see it implemented practically.” However, this promise was never represented in official US policy and there were no announcements from the Pentagon or the US State Department to that effect. Earlier this week Erdogan highlighted the deteriorating relationship between the two leaders: “Last time we spoke, he said he would get back to me. He still didn’t, so I’m not planning to call him [about the cross-border operation]. Those who stabbed us in the back and appear to be our allies…cannot prevent it.” Cavusoglu said US-Turkey relations would be “irreversibly harmed” if Washington goes ahead with the proposed border force. Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have echoed the condemnation of the US plans, despite Turkey supporting anti-Assad rebel groups in the conflict.

US military officials have attempted to reassure their Turkish counterparts and defuse the tensions. Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway is reported to have told the Turkish Anadolu news agency that the US was not involved with the YPG in the Afrin area. "We don't consider them as part of our 'Defeat ISIS' operations, which is what we are doing there and we do not support them. We are not involved with them at all." A US-led coalition spokesman said it remained focused on defeating IS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. The larger force will also take several years to establish; there are currently 230 troops in the inaugural training program, according to coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon. What remains unclear is how a serious conflict between Turkey and the YPG will impact on the US-SDF relationship, with the US determined to create a buffer in north-eastern Syria to prevent the resurgence of IS and to limit Iran’s ability to strengthen its hold in the south of the country via its allies, Assad and Hezbollah.