US to protect Kurds in eastern Syria despite Turkish threats

US military commanders are taking the lead on the Turkish-Syrian Kurdish dispute.
March 11, 2018
US Army Captain Timothy Skinner (L) and US Army Lieutenant-General Paul Funk consult at an American outpost in Manbij, on February 7. (AP)
Standing ground. US Army Captain Timothy Skinner (L) and US Army Lieutenant-General Paul Funk consult at an American outpost in Manbij, on February 7. (AP)

The United States has called on Turkey to use “restraint” in its operations against the Kurds in Afrin in north-western Syria but has not come to their aid. Washington seems to be pursuing a different policy, however, towards the Kurds in Manbij and further east, as they played an instrumental role in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS).

Despite strong Turkish objections and threats, US military commanders in Syria are not lessening their support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs but are led by Kurds, most of whom are affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

In response to Turkish threats, US Army Lieutenant-General Paul Funk, the anti-ISIS coalition commander, told the New York Times: “[If] you hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan answered Funk’s message with more threats: “To those who say, ‘If they hit us, we will respond with force,’ it is clear they have never experienced the Ottoman slap.”

Although Erdogan is getting a boost in polls in Turkey for playing the nationalist card, his words and those of his associates are doing nothing to lower the temperature between the two NATO allies.

During a recent meeting of defence ministers in Rome, Turkish officials accused the United States of keeping ISIS pockets in Syria in place to prolong the war there, to which an angry US Defence Secretary James Mattis responded that “we don’t bypass ISIS” and that US policy towards ISIS was “annihilation.”

The US-Turkish row has been deepened by the Trump administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, which calls for $300 million to train and equip Syrian opposition forces against ISIS and $250 million for a border security force. The Turks see this force as enabling the YPG, which Ankara considers to be an appendage of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group, to further entrench itself in north-eastern Syria.

Because of longstanding NATO ties, the US military traditionally has indulged Turkey. When the US Congress has been critical of Turkey and threatened to stem assistance or block arms sales to Ankara, the Pentagon often weighed in on Turkey’s side.

This time, the Pentagon and US military commanders are taking the opposite approach. Instead of indulging Turkey, they have firmly opposed Ankara’s policies, for several reasons.

First, US military commanders like those who fight. In the anti-ISIS campaign, the Syrian Kurds have proven to be the most trustworthy and dedicated fighters and, through their sacrifices, have helped to rid Syria of most ISIS positions.

Funk said he remained confident in the SDF leadership: “When nobody else could do it, they retook Raqqa [from ISIS]. I think that has earned them a seat at the table.”

Second, the US military sees the Turkish incursion into the Afrin area as an unwelcome diversion from the fight against ISIS pockets in Syria, as the YPG has had to send reinforcements from eastern Syria to Afrin to aid their comrades under siege.

The spokesman for the Manbij military council (led by Syrian Kurds) lamented to the New York Times that the fight against ISIS “has had to be minimised as we reduce our power there to defend Afrin.” US Army Major-General Jamie Jarrard, head of US special operations in Syria and Iraq, said that anything that disrupts the focus against ISIS “takes our eye off that prize” and is “not good.”

Third, US military commanders do not see the YPG as a terrorist organisation but as an integral component of the SDF that has been instrumental in fighting ISIS. Although the United States has designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation, it has refused to pin that label on YPG, much to Ankara’s dismay.

Finally, there is a lingering mistrust by the US military over Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict. For several years, Turkey allowed jihadists from Europe and elsewhere to enter northern Syria through Turkish territory, which bolstered the position of ISIS. Jarrard indirectly referred to this terrorist pipeline when he recently stated that, before the SDF arrived in Manbij, “this was a highway for Islamist terrorist fighters into the physical caliphate from all over the world.”

Despite US diplomatic efforts to smooth over differences with Turkey, US military commanders are taking the lead on the Turkish-Syrian Kurdish dispute and US President Donald Trump often defers to the military. Although it is unclear if the Turks will make a move into Manbij and areas further east, US military commanders are standing firm and are signalling they will aid their Kurdish allies in these regions if they come under attack.