Turkey threatens war against US/Kurdish Force in Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The US announcement that it would form a 30,000 strong policing force in northeast Syria from the YPG leftist Kurdish militia has provoked unprecedently strong words from Turkey, and signs of an unusual convergence of Syrian and Turkish foreign policy objectives. In the cross-hairs are 2,000 US special operations troops embedded with the YPG. The US strategic goal is to block Iranian transfers of men and materiel to Syria and Lebanon via Iraq. In other words, this is another of Donald Trump’s walls. It is meant to please US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, who lost the Syrian war to Iran and Russia but who want to salvage some strategic goals.

The problem is that this US policy is unpopular not only in Iran, Syria and Lebanon but also in Moscow and Ankara. Let me telegraph that I am afraid that the 2,000 US spec ops troops in northeast Syria are in the same peril that US Marines in Beirut were in in 1983. The radical Islamic Amal group drove a truck bomb into the Marines’ barracks in Beirut in that year, killing hundreds and provoking Ronald Reagan to withdraw from Lebanon (“redeploy offshore” were Reagan’s words). Al-Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden later suggested that this withdrawal convinced him that a strike on the US could push it back out of the Middle East. As good as the Kurdish militiamen are, they can’t stop ISIL remnants or other covert terrorist operations from striking in their territory.

Turkey sees the Syrian Kurds as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrilla group, which both Turkey and the US list as terrorists. The US does not agree.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has become increasingly strident and erratic in the past few years, said that the Turkish army was now prepared to intervene in Syria against the new Kurdish border force:

“The operation may start any time. Operations into other regions will come after . . . America has acknowledged it is in the process of creating a terror army on our border. What we have to do is nip this terror army in the bud…” Saying that Turkey’s allies should not dare help what he termed terrorists in Syria, he declared, “We won’t be responsible for the consequences.”

Russia and Syria also condemned the move, alleging that the US is attempting to partition Syria. Any policy helping Kurds move toward more autonomy alarms Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, all of which have significant Kurdish populations they fear could become secessionist. The likelihood is that the Iraqi government also objects, though it isn’t being as vocal as Erdogan and the others. Prime Minister al-Abadi sent Iraqi troops into Kirkuk Province last fall to reassert Baghdad’s authority over the area, also claimed by the now-defeated Kurdistan Regional Government, a superprovince of Iraq itself.

Jordan’s al-Rai (Opinion) newspaper noted that unusual convergence of interests here between Turkey and Syria, both of which feel threatened by Kurdish subnationalism on their territories.

The US military used the Syrian Kurds as ground troops in the fight against ISIL in eastern Syria once it became a serious security concern to Iraq and France from 2014, even though former Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the US ignored ISIL 2011-2014 because Washington hoped it would weaken the Baath Party state of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. When Obama and then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter decided to target ISIL in 2014 and after, they could not get allies such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia to change the policy of benign neglect the way the Americans did. Since Obama was reluctant to commit infantry, the only way to defeat ISIL in Syria’s eastern Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces was to deploy the eager Syrian Kurdish forces against them. After this campaign proved successful, however, the incoming Trump administration decided to repurpose the US-Kurdish alliance to an attempt to block Iranian logistics.

The People’s Protection Units or YPG are the paramilitary of the Democratic Union Party that dominates Syrian Kurdish politics. They were under Communist influence during the Cold War but from the 1990s and moved toward a form of Left anarchism (though their critics say that their co-ops are actually quite heavy-handed and limit personal freedoms, as well as being racist toward Arabs). There are about 2 million Syrian Kurds, some ten percent of the population, located primarily in the northeast of the country in three geographical cantons, Jazira, Kobane and Afrin. The Kurds, with US air support, managed to kick ISIL out of Kobane and unite it with the Jazira in the northeast. But Afrin is separated from Kobane by a string of Arab towns and villages and by a covert Turkish troop presence. The Kurds would like to unite all three cantons into what they call Rojava. At the least, they want Rojava to have a Quebec-like status as a province of a federal Syrian state with special privileges. Maximalists want independence for it. Turkey is determined to block the extension of Rojava to Afrin and wants to roll back YPG presence in Manbij in northern Syria, which they took from ISIL.

The Syrian Baath Party that came to power in the 1960s is so fanatically Arab nationalist (i.e. racist) that it took citizenship away from large numbers of Syrian Kurds. Not sure what they expected but Kurdish secessionism.

The US special ops forces and the YPG now face a similar difficulty to that of ISIL itself in 2014. None of the regional actors wanted its rise and they combined to destroy it.

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Related video:

Al Jazeera English: “Is Donald Trump ‘playing with fire’ by backing Kurds in Syria 🇸🇾? | Inside Story”

14 Responses

  1. You write: “The US special ops forces and the YPG now face a similar difficulty to that of ISIL itself in 2014. None of the regional actors wanted its rise and they combined to destroy it. ”

    Sounds like a perfect prelude to a Trumpian disaster in the Middle East. I’m still even more scared of a Trumpian (and potentially civilization-wide) disaster in North Korea, with actors like Luttwak and McMaster calling for military action there, yet this Syrian one is fairly frightening to our nation’s future as well.

  2. The US and Turkey label the PKK as “terrorist” but disagree whether the YPG is “affiliated” with it. Since the YPG is the paramilitary arm of the Syrian Democratic Union party, does Turkey also claim and does the US also differ that the SDU is “affiliated” with the PKK?

    • “affiliation” depends on your definition. It’s clear all these groups are, to some extent, in favor of Kurdish “nationalism”, whether through autonomous statehood, informal political deal making with the existing regimes, or as part of semi-autonomous recognized regional governments. There is also significant overlap in membership, if it’s fair to use that word. Having said that, though, is it fair to say that US based Irish Catholic ethnic organizations were “affiliated” with the IRA during the troubles? There’s probably a similar level of communication and coordination.

  3. Once again, the United States government is dragging itself into more interventionism (and of course, problems) simply to please the Saudis and Israelis. When will it take the higher ground and do Swiss-style diplomacy? Not anytime soon sadly.

  4. The bigger question to all of this Syrian War business, is why is the U.S. even there in the first place? I will admit to how I have a problem figuring out the strategic value Syria is to the U.S., or is it Israel and Saudi Arabia’s strategic value we are supporting with this wars U.S. leadership?

    In any case, this is a situation where bombs only complicate the problem we find in Syria. America should take a page out of China’s OBOR, and recreate a Marshall Plan. On top of that America should pull back from defending Israel over the Palestinian, and let the UN do it’s job.

    Also when the ‘enemy of my enemy’ strategy quits working, then it’s time to regroup and come up with another plan. Here’s an idea; come home America, your people need you.

    • As I have maintained for some time, Syria has no strategic value to the US and we should not get involved in Syria at all. Unfortunately, interventionist ideology is transcendent in large areas of the foreign policy and defense policy establishments. Add to that a totally ignorant and incompetent administration and you have the recipe for disaster. And some people here before the election worried that Clinton was too hawkish in the Middle East. She was, but Trump is a total disaster.

  5. As usual, President Trump has been pursuing some contradictory policies. In order to reverse anything that the Obama Administration had done, last year he stopped a CIA program to equip and train some rebel groups and to focus on improving relations with Russia. Then, despite the major impact of Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government to defeat the ISIS, he took credit for having destroyed the ISIS. At the same time, the defeat of the terrorists and the rebels went counter to the Israeli and Saudi desire to end Iran’s influence in Syria. So, now, we see another reversal of policy by President Trump to block any path to Iranian and Iraqi access to Syria and Lebanon in order to please the Israelis to expand their buffer zone in the Golan Heights to cover Syria as a whole. This is a recipe for failure, because this time Turkey has also joined Iran, Iraq and Russia in opposing the dismemberment of Syria and empowering the Kurds.

    What the United States needs is a rational and comprehensive Middle East policy that does not cater only to the wishes of the Israelis and the Saudis, but supports a regional security structure that brings peace and security to all the states in the region, including the Palestinians. Instead of trying to kill the Iran nuclear deal, President Trump should encourage his European allies to push for a regional JCPOA that would integrate Iran into the region and would end the Arab-Israeli conflict, but may be that is too much to ask.

  6. I have no problem in principle with the Kurds setting up their own government in majority Kurd regions. I supported the right of the people in Crimea to succeed from Ukraine after the coup there installed an obnoxious government.

    It will be interesting to see how many of the people that preached about the sacredness of national borders in the case of Crimea, take a position in favor of the Kurds separating from Syria. They can argue that the Syrian government is so obnoxious that it justifies succession. But that is in concept at least the reason why Crimea left Ukraine.

    They could argue that Russia interfered in the Crimea situation, but obviously the US is interfering in the Kurd situation.

    It turns out that sacred principles are very dependent on circumstances. But we have all known that for years.

    • I read an article about a year after the Crimean annexation and even native Russians there were disappointed with the aftermath. If you think that annexation of the Crimea to Russia was an organic operation, you need to read more broadly. While it was widely supported because most Crimeans are native Russians, it happened only because of Russian expansionism favored by Putin. Annexation of Crimea was an illegal act, as is US operations in Syria.

  7. How could the US expect the Kurds to block Iranian supply lines to Syria and Hezbollah? Wouldn’t that require that they operate further south, way outside of their area of influence?

  8. Has anyone ever thought about Kurdish identity ? Of course,they want to advance their own autonomy and hope for eventual independence.
    But while it is true that Kurdish identity is different from Arab, Turkish and Iranian identity,the relative distances are not equal. In cultural and linguistic terms Kurds have been more close to Persian Iranians–Iran being a multi-ethnic empire/nationstate–than to either Arabs or Turks. Indeed, classical Iranian nationalists consider their cultural identity to extend from Kurdistan in the West to Tajikistan in the East.
    So,to expect Kurds to “block” Iranian advances in Syria suggests ignorance of local attitudes.

  9. The U.S.A. is always up for a war, regardless of the reason. it keeps their citizens minds off of their own problems. It is strange that the other countries want the Kurds to remain in their countries when the Kurds have no interest in doing so. why not let them go.

    The Kurds did a lot of heavy lifting during the war in Iraq, its time to pay them back and that ought not to be with a knife but rather their own country.

    The Kurds do seem like a much more reasonable people than some of the other countries such as Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria.

  10. Is this ’30, 000-strong policing force’ a re-organization of current YPG/US forces that hold the northeast, or new troops being raised?

    Is it the re-commitment of the US to the Kurds that most concerns Ankara or the actual increase in military power intended by the Kurds/US?

  11. I think that this ongoing US/SDF alliance is a long time in the making. Why would the Syrian Kurds sacrifice so many young fighters so far from their traditional homelands if not for some kind of guarantee of protection after the defeat of ISIS. Also, why would the US expend so many resources to conquer all of Syria east of the Euphrates if only to turn it over to Assad after the defeat of ISIS? I think there’s probably been an unspoken agreement all along and that the new autonomous regions of Eastern Syria will serve as a reliable way to control the bulk of Syria’s oil resources, tamp down a resurgence of Salafi-Jihadists and to block the expansion of Russian/Iranian influence in the area.

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