Following US retreat, Turkish town on Syrian border awaits army move

In Akcakale, heavily armed Turkish soldiers patrolled the border strip while busses brought additional troops into the town.
Wednesday 09/10/2019
Turkish army soldiers drive towards the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on October 8. (AFP)
Turkish army soldiers drive towards the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on October 8. (AFP)

AKCAKALE, Turkey - A group of locals gathered on the edge of the Turkish town of Akcakale one evening this week about a hundred meters from the border with Syria to see what was happening on the other side of the fence.

“They say the Americans have gone,” said one man who peered into the Syrian town of Tal Abyad south of the heavily fortified dividing line. An armoured Turkish military vehicle stood next to an observation tower close by. About 20 kilometres to the east of Akcakale, Turkish troops deployed howitzers and tanks in a cotton field at the border. One soldier shooed reporters away from the site.

Akcakale, a town of 50,000 people whose population has doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees in recent years, lies at the centre of military preparations for Turkey’s expected incursion into Syria.

A surprise decision by US President Donald Trump on October 6 to withdraw US troops from the possible area of the Turkish intervention in north-eastern Syria provided a boost for Ankara’s plans.

In Akcakale, heavily armed Turkish soldiers patrolled the border strip while busses brought additional troops into the town. Even with military preparations in full swing, everyday life in Akcakale continued. Children went to school, while farmers on the fields around the town harvested cotton and peppers.

Turkish forces, together with the rebel Free Syrian Army, will cross the Syrian border “shortly," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post on October 8. One day later, Altun’s office denied reports that the assault had begun.

News reports said thousands of Turkish troops and around 14,000 pro-Turkish rebels from the Free Syrian Army were ready for the incursion. Erdogan’s government says the operation has the double aim of driving the Syrian-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia away from the Syrian side of the border and of establishing a “security zone” to enable up to three million Syrian refugees from Turkey to return to their country.

For Turkey, which views the YPG fighters as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, an influx of non-Kurdish Syrians back into Syria would help it secure a buffer against armed Kurdish groups, seen as Ankara’s main security threat.

After ordering the US withdrawal in Syria, Trump drew sharp criticism for his decision, which the YPG described as a “stab in the back” and US commentators called a betrayal of a vital ally. In recent years the YPG provided ground troops for the US-led international campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Syria. In return, the Kurdish militia received US protection to build up a self-rule region along the Turkish border.

In response to the criticism, Trump has tried to counter the impression that he has left the YPG in the lurch.

The president has oscillated between praising Turkey as a partner and threatening Ankara with economic annihilation if the expected assault resulted in “anything outside of what we would think is humane." Trump had already announced a US withdrawal from Syria last December, but that decision has not been implemented so far.

Analysts said the US president’s to and fro would erode trust in Washington’s policies in the region and could lead to achievements in the fight against the Islamic State being lost because the Turkish military pressure on the YPG. The Kurdish group said a Turkish incursion would force it to cut the number of troops guarding thousands of Islamic State fighters and their family members in several prison camps in eastern Syria.

“Trump’s bewildering policy turns have not only hurt Washington’s image and credibility in the Middle East, but will force regional state and non-state actors to pivot towards Russia and Iran, as they feel the need to hedge their foreign and security policy,” Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington, said by email.

“The potential chaos and power vacuum resulting from Turkey’s unilateral cross-border action will provide Islamic State militants with an opportunity to escape from detention centres and regroup. In trying to cut costs by outsourcing Syria to Erdogan, Trump might end up with much greater security and humanitarian challenge ultimately requiring greater US resources.”

Joseph Bahout, a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East programme, said the expected Turkish incursion would spark new conflicts.

“Turkey’s establishment of a security zone in Syria will further dismember the country into spheres of influence,” Bahout wrote in an analysis on the Carnegie Middle East Center's website. “If Erdogan transfers Syrian refugees there, this will also plant the seeds of a future Arab-Kurdish civil war.”

“In that case, we should expect the Assad regime and its backers to try to exploit the situation and push their advantage in the area. This means that the likelihood of clashes between Turkey and the Syrian regime may rise inexorably.”

Locals in Akcakale said they were convinced that warnings like these would not deter military action by Turkey.

“I wish they would get started,” said Halit, a greengrocer in the town whose shop is just 200 meters from the border. He said he was not afraid. “We have the Turkish army,” he said.

Others were less optimistic. Mehmet, who runs a car wash close to the border, said he still remembered people being in killed in Akcakale when a missile fired in a clash between Syrian government troops and rebels south of the border in 2012 struck a house in the town, killing several people.

“Our own house was hit by bullets back then,” Mehmet said. “The worst peace is better than the best war.”