ISTANBUL, Turkey — Donald Trump’s electoral victory late last year led to much anticipation in Ankara. Since mid-2015, Turkey has become increasingly concerned by US support for the YPG in northern Syria, and relations with the Obama administration became especially fraught since the attempted coup in Turkey last July.
Turkey has been a key US ally in the region for decades, and expectations have been high that the Trump administration might prioritise Turkish interests over short-term gains in the Syrian conflict.
On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is meeting with Trump, a visit that will set the tone for Turkish-US relations at this critical juncture, where they will likely discuss sensitive issues like the YPG and the Raqqa operation against Daesh in northern Syria.
Yet it was only last week, as top Turkish officials – the country’s army and intelligence chief and the president’s spokesperson – were visiting the US capital to lay the ground for the meeting between the two presidents, that the Trump administration chose to announce their decision that they will arm the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK – recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, the US, and NATO – dashing Turkish hopes of a change in course.
In February and March this year, there was a display of force by both US and Russian special forces in the same crucial location: Manbij, in northern Syria. This frustrated Turkey’s efforts to minimise the influence of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the YPG-led armed alliance both powers see as a key ally in Syria.
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) February 25, 2017
It was viewed as especially provocative since Turkey had previously pledged Manbij would be the next front in its Euphrates Shield operation. Turkey had aimed to secure the northern Syria territories between the YPG-held Afrin and Kobani territories, which lie along the country’s border with Syria.
During the cross-border Operation Euphrates Shield, which began in mid-2016, Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces defeated Daesh in the Syrian border region, claiming the strategic town of Al Bab which is to the east of Aleppo and the west of Manbij.
The strange alliance between the YPG, the US and the Russians
After Turkey and its allies took over Al Bab, some pro-Assad social media accounts posted videos showing heavy armoured US and Russian military vehicles in Manbij.
— Nawar Oliver (@Nawaroliver) March 9, 2017
Interestingly, both countries’ troops are pictured sporting MMC (Manbij Military Council) patches on the sleeves of their uniforms. The MMC is part of the SDF structure set up by the US-led anti-Daesh coalition. But Russia also has made no public objection to the SDF, and has kept lines of communication open with the YPG, the force which dominates the SDF. Indeed, the PYD (YPG umbrella organisation) even has an office in Moscow.
While the two world powers may clash and disagree on so many other occasions over Syria, they have so far found common ground as far as the YPG goes.
“Russians see the SDF as a sort of way that they can work with Americans in Syria. Both support the same force and they are kind of on the same side regarding the SDF,” said Kyle W Orton, a Middle East analyst who is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.
Turkey has been seriously concerned with the explicit support by the US of an armed group which is so fundamentally opposed to Turkey’s interests in the Middle East. Russia’s warmness towards the SDF has compounded Turkey’s fears that its influence and stability are being undermined. Inside Turkey, the PKK has waged an armed campaign since the early 1980s against the Turkish state, which has so far claimed more than 40,000 lives.
In November 2013, the PYD announced three autonomous territories, or “cantons”, which were established following the withdrawal of Syrian regime forces from mostly Kurdish-inhabited areas in northern Syria. They are Afrin, in the northwestern corner; Kobani, in the centre; and Jazira, in the northeastern corner. The PYD calls these territories collectively Rojava, which means “Western Kurdistan.” After the YPG-led SDF claimed Manbij from Daesh in August 2016, a town that could bridge the PYD’s Afrin and Kobani cantons, alarm bells rang in Ankara, pushing Turkey to more direct militarily intervention in northern Syria. This contributed to the launch of Operation Euphrates Shield.
Manbij represented “deconflict” between the Russians and the Americans over their respective policies in Syria, according to US Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson. Davis insisted that the two armies had no “planned co-ordination” in Manbij, although Moscow wanted to keep the Americans “abreast of their operations."
Such an aggressive move makes Turkey’s powers that be anxious over what the future may hold in northern Syria.
“US and Russia have wanted to contain Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation with their military assertiveness in Manbij [after Turkish-backed FSA claimed Al Bab from Daesh],” said Metin Gurcan, a security expert and a former Turkish army officer.
Gurcan pointed out the fact that the Kobani and Jazira cantons are mostly poorly defended, and therefore vulnerable to a possible Turkish operation.
“But Turkey still wanted to get US support before making this kind of critical military move in northern Syria,” he stressed.
The Euphrates: Turkey’s red line
Manbij lies to the west of the Euphrates, a river that has for millennia marked the political border of the civilisations of the Middle East, much like Europe’s Rhine. The great Mesopotamian river defined the western Roman Empire’s border with the eastern Persian Empire for centuries. Later, it was a natural borderline between successive Muslim states and the Christian Byzantine Empire. Most recently, Turkey declared any incursion west of the Euphrates along the Turkish border by the PYD as a violation of the red line, which was drawn by the country’s top security council in mid-2015.
“Northern Syria is a contested area between Russia and US, but through a tacit compromise, they have their own de facto zones around the Euphrates river. According to the US [perspective], west of Euphrates belongs to the Syrian regime [and its backer Russia] and east of Euphrates belongs to the US and its allies,” Gurcan told TRT World.
“The airforce which controls the airspace just over the Euphrates river also controls the gates of the Eastern Euphrates and Western Euphrates [which respectively corresponds northeastern and northwestern Syria],” Gurcan said.
This analysis might explain why both countries deployed forces in a semi-coordinated fashion in Manbij – both wanted to send a clear message to Ankara and other regional actors; forcing them to accept their mutual presence.
Last Tuesday, rather than backing off of the Obama administration’s policy, the Trump administration announced it would go even further, saying explicitly that they will arm “Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)” to help them to capture Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, to defeat the group completely in Syria. The Turkish defence minister condemned the decision, describing it as the sign of “a major crisis.”
Yet Erdogan sounded milder and more conciliatory in his most recent remarks concerning the US arming of YPG:
“We will personally convey our concerns related to [US administration’s] latest decision to President Trump in detail on May 16 during our meeting [in Washington]. I hope that this mistake will be reversed as soon as possible,” Erdogan said.
Last week’s announcement was a sign of the limitations of the Trump administration to make any dramatic departures to US policy in the region. It demonstrates “the gradual submission of the Trump administration to the deep state structure in the US, which is represented by US CENTCOM,” Gurcan told TRT World, referring to the operational control centre of US combat forces in the Middle East.
“The US government has tried to balance military necessity with Turkey’s interests in northern Syria. But they were planning and preparing their forces [SDF] to claim Raqqa for a long time. They [the Americans] want to execute a plan like they have now been doing in northern Iraq against Daesh. In order to keep maintenance of operational tempo, they thought they need to move for Raqqa,” Gurcan said.
“They [the Americans] delayed their plan, waiting to see the outcome of Turkey’s referendum, and now it is over. And they desperately need the YPG to capture Raqqa. But it will not be an easy [victory] and the Raqqa operation will probably take months.”
Relying on a heavily Kurdish-dominated force carries significant risks in northern Syria, where Arabs constitute a significant portion of the population, many experts warn.
”The Americans know that [the Arab-dominated] population in Raqqa will not accept openly to be occupied by the YPG or the PKK. That’s why Americans try to attach Arab units to the YPG which is called the SDF. I think Arab units are completely inconsequential to the actual project ensued by SDF. It is a handy short-term policy [on the side of Americans],” Orton said.
“The US enabled the YPG to seize territory across northern Syria and attention was absolutely to defeat ISIS [Daesh] as quick as they could. And the YPG was the instrument at hand. But the YPG is the PKK and it is not even an affiliate. The concept of affiliate gives you impression of distance. There is no distance [in YPG-PKK relationship]. It is organic, completely integrated part of PKK, including overlapped membership which is also not just in leadership level. (Leadership level is entirely the same people),” Orton said.
Gurcan also thinks that Trump administration is approaching the YPG in a “transitional fashion.”
Gurcan drew attention to the fact when Kurdish armed groups move beyond their traditional spheres, they usually have troubles. As a Turkish officer, Gurcan was stationed to Kirkuk as part of Turkish military contingency in 2004 and witnessed the high tension between Sunni Arab armed groups and Kurdish peshmergas in the infamous “Sunni Triangle.”
“Eventually, the Americans recognised the fact they can not move in an Arab-dominated territory with a Kurdish-led force and they formed ‘Awakening (Sahwa) Councils’ whose members were recruited from Sunni Arab tribes,” he observed.
Because of the significance of Raqqa, at the end of the day, the US will need Turkey’s help to shape a sustainable outcome, to support the transitional process in those areas heavily populated by Arabs.
Orton agrees with this statement and argues that a Turkish-led operation to Raqqa is more viable and preferable than any other option. “There are any number of opposition forces and Arabs in Turkey and elsewhere in the country which could be used to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. It would involve working alongside the Turks to help set up this army,” Orton told TRT World.
“The Turks offered themselves to put troops in Raqqa. Everything we see from tribes around Raqqa is that they are far more receptive to Turkish-led operation than the one led by PKK. A formal government led by Turkey and Arab rebels will be seen a lot more likely to be a durable solution [in Raqqa] than the one PKK is leading. How ISIS is defeated is much more important than when it is defeated.”
But with their latest announcement, the Americans apparently want to stick with the YPG, with Moscow in the mix. Will this trigger an unexpected Turkish move in Syria, particularly, against PYD’s militarily emptied Kobani and Jazira cantons?
“In the Raqqa operation, if the US goes [with the] YPG, Turkey has a large capacity to disrupt that operation. It is the question of how and when that happens, really,” Orton replied.
“I think a lot of more instabilities are coming.”