Syria: US Boots on Ground risks Conflict with Turkey, not Russia

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The White House’s announcement on Friday that the US will keep “less than 50” special ops troops at an HQ of the Kurdish YPG in northeast Syria for the purposes of training and strategic counseling raised concerns in some quarters that Russia might inadvertently bomb US troops.

So that’s not likely to happen, since the US troops will be deep in Syrian Kurdish territory in the northeast of the country. That is upper right in purple on the above map embedded from Twitter. The US hopes to convince the leftist Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is allied with a smaller force of anti-fundmentalist Sunni Arab tribesmen, to take on ISIL directly and expel it from its capital, Raqqa, and indeed from Syria entirely.

The Kurdish northeast is one theater of the Syrian civil war, where the Kurds and their Arab allies have been directly fighting Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). The US was attracted by their success, even if they are post-Marxists.

Russia is mainly fighting in a wholly different theater, in the northwest, above Hama and east of Latakia. One of its goals is to take back that part of Idlib Province that has fallen to the Army of Conquest, in which at least two al-Qaeda-linked guerrilla groups play a big role.

If you imposed Syria on a US map, you could say that Obama and the Kurds are fighting ISIL in Maine, and Russia is giving air support to the Baath army against al-Qaeda and allied groups in Oregon. (Admittedly, Syria is geographically small compared to the US, and is probably only about 300 miles wide, so Oregon and Maine are ten times closer to one another).

Russia also supports the leftist Kurds against ISIL, so in that theater Moscow is on the same page with Washington.

The conflict these US actions generate is with Turkey, a NATO ally of the US which lies just north of Syria. Turkey is deeply afraid of the Syrian Kurds’ YPG militia, which Ankara sees as a branch of the radical PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) guerrilla group with which the Turkish government has been fighting since the 1970s, considering it a separatist terrorist group.

The Syrian Kurds’ YPG has been so effective against ISIL that US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is clearly in love with them and wants to support them with a couple of special ops platoons and better air support.

But on Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Turkey had bombed the Kurdish YPG fighters twice. He said that they had tried to move west of Kobane in a quest to unite the three Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria along the Turkish border, which, Davutoglu said, would not be allowed.

It is possible that the public announcement that US troops would embed with the YPG was in part intended to warn Turkey against further bombing of latter.

What is really odd is that the US intends to use Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey to support the YPG and its Arab allies in their fight against Daesh in Raqqa. How did Washington get Ankara to agree to that?

The US troops will be substantially east of Kobane, but in any case the only external power involved in Syria that might inadvertently bomb US troops is Turkey, not Russia.


Related video:

Euronews: ” First US special forces to de deployed in Syria”

16 Responses

  1. JC: …”special ops troops at an HQ of the Kurdish YPG in northeast Syria for the purposes of training and strategic counselling”….

    Oh, please, pull the other one.

    The USA wants the YPG to strike south against Raqqa. The Kurds think (correctly) that this is stupide: they want to strike west towards Afrin.

    The USA opposes that plan (as, far more vehemently, does Turkey).

    So you have a patron who wants his client to do *this*, and a client who is tempted to ignore that patron and do *that* instead.

    What’s a superpower to do in those circumstances?

    Why, they embed these guys in amongst those troops:
    link to

    That’s what these “special ops troops at an HQ of the Kurdish YPG” are being sent to do.

    They aren’t being sent to “train” the Kurds.
    They aren’t being sent to “counsel” the Kurds.
    They aren’t being sent to “warn off” the Turks.

    They are being sent to make sure that these damn Kurds stick to the script that Washington has written for them.

    The script says that they go south – literally – and if they don’t then the USA will ensure that the whole damn Kurdish enterprise goes south – figuratively.

    • I don’t know of any evidence the US would mind if Kurds go west to Afrin. That would cut off ISIL supply lines.

      • It has been reported in this McClatchy article:
        link to

        Polat Can: “We in the YPG have a strategic goal, to link Afrin with Kobani,”

        McClatchy: “American military officials say the U.S. won’t back any such operation, and officials in Ankara say Turkey would block it, by force if necessary.”

        The Americans do not want the YPG to strike out to the West. Period.

        I don’t doubt that the USA would *like* to see ISIS cut off from all resupply.

        Sure, they would. But Ankara has other ideas, and so the Americans have to weigh up:
        a) Cutting off ISIS at the knees, against
        b) Watching Erdogan go full-tilt ape-shit crazy
        and they have made the decision that avoiding (b) is far more important than achieving (a).

        Sad, but true.

        Such is the business of being a super-power, where the MO is not so much to be “indispensable” as it is “reprehensible”.

        • That shows poor planning on the part of the US. Erdogan has outworn his welcome and no longer commands popular support. The US seriously needs some deep analysis of internal Turkish politics, but it’s quite possible that watching Erdogan go apeshit crazy is, in the long run, the correct move and that he will get thrown out at the ballot box.

          The US would have to be prepared to make sure he leaves when he loses the election, though.

        • Do cheap cynicism and elaborate sneering really win arguments for you? I have never found those to be effective tactics.

  2. In principle, all states need to fulfill their obligations in international organisations. However, in reality, Turkey is “leveraging multidimensionally” its NATO obligations vis-a-vis Kurd state policy i.e. national interest.

    This is non-exclusive state behaviour.

  3. You mention that Turkey might bomb their allies, is it also possible that the USA might attack Turkish forces?

  4. “How did Washington get Ankara to agree to that?”

    One guess: The United States might have access to evidence that directly incriminates high-ranking AKP members in their supposed support of and alliance with daesh. For example:

    link to jöntü

    In any case, even if it’s not as explicit as the above, Erdoğan & co.’s relations with daesh are an open secret.

    With much hope, none of this will matter after elections tomorrow, when the AKP mafia is booted out of power and HDP comes to play a central role in the next government.

  5. I haven’t heard a different concern mentioned, which I think is important. As the “boots on the ground” (a term I loathe) escalate, there will, at some point, be a capture of an American GI by ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. That will result in his/her horrific death, YouTubed for all to see, and we will do a full-fledged invasion in retaliation after. Americans will demand the grisly act be avenged. Then we’ll be in the region forever on yet another misadventure.

  6. … special ops troops at an HQ of the Kurdish YPG in northeast Syria for the purposes of training and strategic counseling …

    According to the White House these troops won’t be engaged in combat. I wonder how that form of reasoning would hold up if Bradley/Chelsea Manning had only shown someone else how to copy and send the files to Wikileaks. Sorry, Chelsea. Guilt by association applies in your case but not in the case of special ops.

  7. Every time Professor Cole describes the various alliances and relationships among all the groups within a particular country or area, it just illustrates how convoluted and messed up things are. If we support one ally we get in trouble with another. Oppose one faction and you are on the side of another that is equally odious. I fear that Obama has gotten involved in Syria because of pressure from conservatives in Congress and is doing just enough, he hopes, to appease them. This is a terrible way to make policy. There are no good options in Syria, it is not in our national interest and we should get out. I think Obama really wants to disengage from the Middle East, but feels like domestic opposition and events in the region are forcing him to do more than he wants. We need to cut the cord. It was painful to do that from Vietnam and adjoining states, but we are better off for doing it.

  8. “Russia also supports the leftist Kurds against ISIL”

    To correct a possible misapprehension, Russia is no longer communist or even leftist, but conservative. The move left to crony capitalism raped and nearly destroyed their nation, so they have now moved right.

  9. If you look at our hundred years or more of regime change, starting with General Smedley Butler and going up to General Wesley Clark, who both testified to it, our “regime change” in Latin America, the Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Ukraine, has killed at least 20 million people, not even counting the Native Americans. Making us a genocidal nation on par with Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China – who had similar figures.

  10. Turkey’s heading straight for civil war at the moment. Erdogan has been destabilizing the democracy.

    Forget Syria. I’d like to see an analysis of the factions within Turkey. So far I count:
    — Erdogan and his loyalists
    — portions of the AKP hostile to Erdogan
    — Gulenists and the parts of the government they control
    — the traditional Kemalists & their military allies
    — the Kurdish groups (all peaceful at this point)
    — the left wing non-Kurds (pro-peace, pro-democracy, anti-Erdogan, often formerly pro-Erdogan)

    Am I missing any major powerbases?

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