Euphrates Shield and the complexities of fighting the Kurds
Since Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, its first major intervention in the Syrian war, its leaders have done little to disguise the fact that their main target was not the retreating forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) but rather the advancing forces of the Syrian Kurds.
“We will absolutely not allow any terror activity on or near our borders,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a few days into the offensive.
He made no distinction, however, between ISIS “terror” and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey sees as a terrorist group and has vowed to confront with “the same determination”.
The initial target of the Turkish operation, which began August 24th, was Jarabulus, a Syrian border town west of the Euphrates river that ISIS seized in mid-2013 without, until now, incurring any Turkish military response. Erdogan ordered the offensive after a bomb attack blamed on ISIS killed 55 people in south-eastern Turkey.
Just as significantly for Turkey, it also followed the defeat of ISIS at the town of Manbij, also west of the Euphrates, by rebels of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF is an alliance that includes Arabs, Assyrians and other minorities but is dominated by the PYD. The presence of Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates represented a red line for Ankara.
Turkey-backed rebels of the Free Syria Army, supported by Turkish tanks and warplanes, mopped up ISIS resistance with remarkable speed, prompting accusations from the Kurds of collusion between Ankara and the jihadists.
The Turkish intervention, which swiftly transmogrified into a Turkish-Kurdish conflict, added one more layer of confusion and contradiction to the Syrian drama.
The first week of Operation Euphrates Shield saw clashes between units of the SDF and the Free Syria Army, both backed by the United States with the ostensible purpose of confronting ISIS rather than each other.
Ankara appeared at least as alarmed by the Kurds linking up their advancing forces along the entire Syrian border with Turkey as it was with a continued ISIS presence on the frontier. In the absence of a clear strategy from Washington on how to respond, Erdogan decided to go it alone.
The United States expressed its frustration by demanding that Turkey stop attacking the SDF and focus on ISIS. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook condemned the fighting south of Jarabulus, where Turkish armed troops had fought with the SDF.
“We want to make clear that we find these clashes unacceptable and they are a source of deep concern,” he said. “This is an already crowded battle space. Accordingly, we’re calling on all armed actors to stand down immediately and take appropriate measures to de-conflict.”
The Pentagon’s concerns are understandable. Its backing for the SDF and for the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units militia (YPG), is a reflection of the success of those forces in confronting ISIS compared with the often lacklustre performance of other supposed allies.
The YPG’s reputation was founded on its successful defence of the border town of Kobane in the face of an ISIS siege in 2014-15.
Washington has backed the Kurds in the face of Ankara’s insistence that the YPG is merely an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) against which it is fighting a renewed war in south-eastern Turkey that began in 1984.
The Kurds may have proved the most dependable partner in the conflict against ISIS but their role in the Syrian civil war is more complex. The Kurds’ self-declared autonomous region of Rojava is regarded with suspicion by Syrian rebel groups, who see it is a step towards Kurdish separatism and the dismantling of the Syrian state.
The Kurds are also accused of cooperating with Damascus since the start of the conflict rather than fighting the regime but that has not prevented intermittent clashes or government attacks on Kurdish targets.
The Kurds fought regime forces for control of Hasakah in north-eastern Syria in mid-August. The Kurds won a battle that saw Syrian planes bomb Kurdish territory for the first time in the war.
Officially, the Kurdish-dominated government of Rojava supports a federal system for the whole of Syria. Its strategy has been to underline its commitment to bringing Arabs and other non- Kurds into the administration, a policy reflected in the multi-ethnic make-up of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Kurds may have been tempting fortune by trying to link up the pockets of territory they hold west of the Euphrates. There were indications by the end of August that units were moving back to the stronghold of Rojava after the United States told them to retreat or risk losing American air cover.
From the Turkish perspective, Operation Euphrates Shield may serve its purpose but it fails to resolve who will ultimately control the length of the border region as ISIS continues to be pushed back.