Washington’s support to SDF in Syria fuels US-Turkish tensions

Turkey is unlikely to get what it wants in northern Syria.
Sunday 31/03/2019
Bumpy road. A US military vehicle drives through the Syrian village of Baghouz in the countryside of the eastern Deir ez-Zor province, last January.  (AFP)
Bumpy road. A US military vehicle drives through the Syrian village of Baghouz in the countryside of the eastern Deir ez-Zor province, last January. (AFP)

BERLIN - The military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) by Kurdish-led forces backed by the United States is sparking new tensions in northern Syria, where Turkey is preparing to move against the Kurds despite warnings by Washington.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance dominated by a Kurdish militia, has declared victory over ISIS after routing the jihadists in their last bastion in the eastern Syrian hamlet of Baghouz. The defeat in Baghouz means the self-styled ISIS caliphate, which once encompassed almost 90,000 sq.km in Syria and Iraq, has been destroyed.

The United States praised its Kurdish partners, who lost more than 10,000 fighters as they pushed ISIS back with the support of American air power over the course of several years. “We are inspired by the battlefield success of the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan said in a statement.

Shanahan suggested that US support for the group would continue. “We understand our work is far from complete. As the D-ISIS campaign in north-east Syria transitions from liberating territory to enabling local security and preventing resurgent ISIS networks, we will continue to work by, with, and through our partners and allies to enable stabilisation efforts,” Shanahan said, referring to the campaign to defeat ISIS.

Reports say the Pentagon’s budget for 2020 has earmarked $300 million to train and equip the SDF. The Wall Street Journal reported that US military officials were drawing up plans to leave approximately 1,000 US soldiers in Syria despite an announcement by US President Donald Trump of a pullback of all 2,000 US troops. Washington said the United States would keep a “residual presence” in Syria.

Continued US assistance to the SDF is the last thing Turkey wants to see. Ankara regards the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish force that forms the backbone of the SDF, as a terrorist organisation and vowed to send troops into northern Syria to create a YPG-free buffer zone along Turkey’s southern border.

Turkey has staged two military incursions into Kurdish areas in northern Syria since 2016 and controls areas around the cities of Jarabulus and Afrin. Following the end of the battle against ISIS in Baghouz, the SDF called on Turkey to leave Syria, Reuters reported.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, said the United States is reluctant to grant Turkey a role in northern Syria. “It is unlikely that the Trump administration will concede a Turkish role in northern Syria similar to the US-Turkish agreement in Manbij,” a Syrian city where US and Turkish troops agreed on joint patrols, Macaron said via e-mail.

“Implementing a buffer zone between Kurdish fighters and Turkish forces along the Syrian-Turkish border largely depends on whether American and European officials agree on a deal to deploy joint forces to secure this buffer zone,” Macaron added.

Turkey is unlikely to get what it wants in the area, he said. “US policy for the foreseeable future remains to protect [its] Kurdish allies in northern Syria while simultaneously appeasing Ankara’s demands,” he said.

The US position could lead Turkey to look for other partners while Washington and Ankara are also in a row over Turkey’s plan to buy a Russian missile defence system. The government in Ankara said Turkish and Iranian forces were involved in a joint operation against militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the mother organisation of the YPG that is active in Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Tehran rejected the Turkish assertion but the message from Ankara was clear, said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a consultancy in Washington. For Turkey, US support for the SDF was “unacceptable and Ankara will work with any willing partners in the region that share Turkey’s interest in countering the forces of Kurdish separatism, including Iran,” Cafiero wrote in an analysis for the Centre for Iranian Studies in Ankara.

“Such a strategy on Ankara’s part undermines the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against the Islamic Republic [of Iran], yet such costs in the form of greater tension in Turkey-US relations are worth accepting as officials in Ankara see it,” Cafiero pointed out.

The Kurds are also concerned about vows by the Syrian leadership to return the Kurdish area in eastern Syria under central government control. Talks between the Kurds and Damascus about possible autonomy for the Kurdish region have yet to produce results.

Following the victory over ISIS in Baghouz, Rojava Resistance, a pro-YPG Twitter account, posted video of what it said were 150 trucks taking “military reinforcement and heavy weapons” to Qamishli, a Syrian city on Turkish border that has been partly under YPG control. Last December, 18 people were killed in clashes between the YPG and Syrian Army units in the city.