Kurdish SDF caught between Turkish, US aims in Syria

Turkey’s aggression, apparently in the face of US pressure to the contrary, is not without its own logic.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attend the funeral of one of their commanders in Qamishly in north-eastern Syria, on October 29. (AFP)
Paused. Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attend the funeral of one of their commanders in Qamishly in north-eastern Syria, on October 29. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) finds itself torn between competing war aims of its US allies and Turkish opponents as the SDF declared a pause in the battle to reclaim one of the remaining pockets held by the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria.

As the SDF fought to take control of the region, Turkish shelling increased on Kurdish positions in northern Syria, splintering the loyalties of the United States’ principal ally in the country and leading the SDF to announce a pause in operations at the eastern Syrian city of Hajin on October 31.

An unlikely final redoubt, Hajin, on a bend of the Euphrates River and with a population of 60,000, few major streets and one public hospital, has proven nearly impregnable.

Hajin fell under ISIS control in 2013 and the terror group increased the number of its fighters in the town after its caliphate began to fall in 2016. It established a tunnel network under Hajin and built up relations with the area’s tribal population to further entrench itself in the area’s daily life.

Though shelling ISIS positions by SDF and coalition forces continues, the SDF offensive on Hajin was proving costly even before its pause. With desert sand kicked up by high winds reducing visibility to a few metres, the SDF — said to be drawn from a pool of fighters of wildly differing experience and ability — sustained heavy casualties even before the pause in operations againts ISIS was announced. Agence France-Presse reported that, as of October 30, 72 SDF fighters had been killed.

“Turkish attacks in the north and ISIS attacks in the south against our troops had forced us to stop our current operation temporarily against ISIS in the last pocket of it,” the SDF said in announcing the pause.

“We also call the international community to condemn the Turkish provocations in the safe areas in Syria and we demand our partners in the international coalition to show a clear attitude and stop Turkey from launching attacks on the region,” the statement added.

The SDF’s partnership with the United States provided little insurance against Turkish attacks on Kurdish positions. Ankara, intensely hostile to the threat it feels posed by Kurdish nationalism and keen to establish a haven to accommodate some of its 3 million Syrian refugees, sought to carve out a buffer zone along its border, irrespective of the concerns of the United States.

Turkish forces earlier in the year attacked Kurdish positions in Afrin, forcing the SDF to break off operations against ISIS in April and reinforce their compatriots on Turkey’s border. A marked increase in ISIS attacks was reported afterwards.

“For ISIS, this is a godsend,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity. “In allaying the SDF’s advance, it scored a major reprieve and bought time to regroup and re-establish itself.

“More than that, it provides a clear lesson to the coalition (the US-led forces in Syria) of the uncertainty of relying so heavily on local partners when their priorities might lie elsewhere.”

Turkey’s aggression, apparently in the face of US pressure to the contrary, is not without its own logic. “Erdogan really wants to see how far he can test this,” Heras said. “He knows he needs a modus vivendi (working arrangement) with the US forces in Syria but he also wants to know how far he can push that.”

“Right now, the US has to rely on Turkey playing nice and Erdogan knows that,” Heras said. “As Turkey prepares to establish control over a long strip of contiguous territory (in Syria) along its border, he wants to know how flexible the US is willing to be over Turkish action.”

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