US wants Turkey to do more against ISIS
Istanbul - The US government is calling on Turkey to step up its contribution in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria but Ankara is busy preparing to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria with the help of allied militia groups.
Officially, Turkey joined the military battle against ISIS on July 24th, when it conducted air strikes on jihadist targets in northern Syria. Ankara also opened its air bases close to the Syrian border to US fighter jets and drones. However, a month later, there have been only three Turkish air strikes on ISIS while the Turkish air force has attacked positions of Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and Turkey dozens of times.
US officials say Turkey is not doing enough to keep ISIS fighters from crossing into Syria from Turkish territory. “This needs to be done,” US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on August 20th. “It’s overdue, because it’s a year into the campaign. But they’re indicating some considerable effort now, including some — allowing us to use their airfields. That’s important but it’s not enough.”
Turkey says it is doing what it can to seal the border. Troops have started to dig trenches and to erect walls made of prefabricated slabs of concrete along the border to make it more difficult for ISIS fighters to cross. Authorities have stepped up the hunt for militants along the border.
Army and police units arrested 63 ISIS members on the border between Aug 18 and 24 alone, according to army statements and the official Anadolu news agency.
But the real rift between the United States and Turkey is not about how many arrests have been made along the Syrian border. The countries have different priorities in the Syrian conflict. While the United States sees ISIS as the main enemy and is working with troops of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s Kurdish party, to raise pressure on jihadists, Turkey is concerned about gains the Kurds have made in northern Syria thanks to US air support.
Ankara has been warning that the Syrian Kurds, who are allied to the Turkish-Kurdish rebel group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), could attempt to create a Kurdish state as Syria disintegrates due to the civil war raging since 2011.
To counter that development, Turkey says it wants to set up a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The zone would stretch about 100 kilometres from Azaz in the west to Jarabulus on the Euphrates in the east and would extend about 40 kilometres into Syria from the Turkish border, according to news reports. The zone would prevent Kurds from uniting Kurdish areas in Syria’s north-west and north-east.
Turkish officials say their country and the US government are determined to keep both ISIS and the PYD out of the area but Washington denies there is an agreement with Turkey that includes setting up a buffer zone.
In the absence of a clear understanding with Washington, news reports suggest that Turkey may be taking unilateral steps to create the “safe zone” with the help of supporters in Syria. Ankara’s favourites are the Syrian Turkmen, a group of several hundred thousand with ethnic links to Turkey who have welcomed Ankara’s “safe zone” plan.
“Turkmen with their roughly 5,000 armed men could fight as volunteers against the PKK and Daesh”, if Turkey wanted them to, Samir Hafiz, general coordinator of the Syrian Turkmen Group, told the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper in Turkey. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The Independent newspaper in Britain reported Turkish troops had escorted Turkmen fighters over the border from Turkey to Azaz in preparation for the “safe zone”. The BritishTelegraph said Turkey had begun training a Turkmen police force for a planned deployment inside the buffer zone. There was no official confirmation.
Turkey’s plan for the zone also received backing by Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Islamist militia in Syria.
Creating the “safe zone” was “in the interest of the Syrian people” and would have “positive effects, from the humanitarian, military and political perspectives that will serve the interests of both countries”, the group said in a statement in August.
Ahrar al-Sham called Turkey “the most important ally of the revolution” in Syria. “The strategic relationship between us and Turkey is necessary to face challenges and shape the future of Syria,” it said.
Ahrar al-Sham is part of a rebel coalition that includes al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front. It has seized large areas from regime forces in Idlib province in north-western Syria. Its support for the ISIS-free zone puts it at odds with al-Nusra.
At the same time, Turkey’s relations with Ahrar al-Sham could deepen the rift between Ankara and Washington about how to proceed in Syria. Francis Ricciardone, a former US ambassador to Ankara, said in 2014 that Turkey worked with al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other hard-line groups that were considered too extremist by the United States.