The US consistently sends mixed signals to Turkey on its strategy in northern Syria where it has allied with YPG, a PKK affiliate. Ankara wants to ensure its national security isn't compromised by terror groups on its border.
Turkey has announced it will conduct another cross-border operation in northern Syria, targeting US-backed YPG forces east of the Euphrates River, where at least 2,000 US military personnel are reportedly assisting YPG groups. The operation could potentially mean that the two NATO allies confront each other.
Ankara has long opposed Washington’s support of the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which has staged a three-decades-long armed campaign against the Turkish state. However, despite designating the PKK as a terrorist organisation, the US cites the YPG as an ally in the fight against Daesh, refusing to admit any connection between the PKK and the YPG.
“There is no Daesh threat anymore in Syria. It’s a tale. Our operation to the east of the Euphrates River will start in a few days,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 12, heralding the new Turkish operation and challenging the US justification to stay in the region.
“Unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present or in the vicinity, is of grave concern,” the Pentagon replied to Erdogan’s announcement.
“We would find any such actions unacceptable,” said Navy Commander Sean Robertson, the Pentagon spokesman.
Since August 2016, Turkey has launched two successful back-to-back military operations—Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch—which helped the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces claim much of the territory west of the Euphrates River.
“Our target is not the American soldiers, it is the terror organisations that are active in the region,” Erdogan emphasised.
If the US rationalisation of its long-term presence in northern Syria is the Daesh threat, as repeatedly stated by Washington, then President Donald Trump has already contradicted this position.
“There are very few of them left in that area of the world. And within another 30 days, there won’t be any of them left,” Trump said, on December 11, during the signing ceremony of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018.
But there is no clear sign when Washington will pull out of the region. Experts believe the US will stay there indefinitely because it wants to use the YPG as a proxy against Iran and Russia, maintaining military bases to conduct its operations in the Middle East.
“Under no circumstances, will the US leave the region [YPG-controlled northern Syria territories],” said Cevat Ones, the former deputy director of the Turkish national intelligence agency.
“By stalling Turkey, the US demonstrates to Turkey that [it plans] to have a permanent presence there,” Ones told TRT World.
Erdogan’s latest statement indicates that disagreements in Syria between the two NATO allies are getting worse, with a growing perception in Ankara that the US is just paying lip service to Turkey’s security concerns with no intention of changing its plans in northern Syria.
“In Manbij, [the US] have conducted an undeniable delaying tactic. They are still continuing to do that,” an angered Erdogan said, referring to the recent US-Turkish cooperation in Manbij, a contentious Syrian town controlled by YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Americans are not “being honest,” Erdogan says, “they are still not removing terrorists [from Manbij].”
The town of Manbij is located on the west of the Euphrates River, where Washington and Ankara recently agreed to hold joint patrols. Turkey has previously declared that any YPG move to the west of the Euphrates would be regarded as a red line.
But there are more than just the Manbij issues causing tension between the two allies.
Turkey’s list of concerns regarding the US’s Syria policy has not diminished but rather increased in the face of Washington’s new YPG initiatives, ranging from building observatory posts across the Turkish border to training more than 30,000 militants under the SDF.
When Turkey questions US intentions on its initiatives with the YPG, Washington has always maintained it is not working against Ankara’s interests. For example, the Pentagon says it is building the observatory posts to address Turkey’s border security concerns.
But Turkey sees it differently.
"It is clear that the purpose of US observation points is not to protect our country from terrorists but to protect terrorists from Turkey," Erdogan said in the same speech.
Turkey also has a totally different take on recent US efforts to train SDF militants so they can build a 30,000-strong border security force, which Washington describes as an anti-Daesh force. Referring to the SDF force, Erdogan pointedly said: “Lastly, they have made another step to train 30,000 terrorists in the region.”
There is a clear trust deficit between Turkey and the US.
“While Americans speak to us in a positive manner to our face, they prefer to support the elements of the separatist terrorist organisation [PKK] against Daesh on the ground,” Erdogan said.
A YPG-led region funded by Saudis?
Ones calls US support for the YPG is “a strategic reinforcement” for Washington's “long-term designs” concerning a Kurdish-dominated autonomous region, which will likely be a mirror image of the Kurdish autonomous region it carved out in northern Iraq in the 1990s, soon after the first Gulf War.
The YPG recruits most of its militants from the Kurdish-populated areas of northern Syria, which neighbours Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern region.
Soon after the Assad regime withdrew from northern Syria during the civil war, the YPG moved in, creating ‘cantons’, or autonomous areas, in the region in 2012.
There are other disturbing details about the funding of the new SDF border force. In May, the Saudi Arabians and their allies were in talks with YPG and SDF leadership to fund the force. The Saudis have also established checkpoints in YPG-controlled towns in northeastern Syria to recruit militants for the new force, according to media reports.
In late November, Turkish media reported that the Saudi Kingdom and the UAE had deployed their own forces to support the SDF and help establish the border force.
The alleged deployment comes in the wake of the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate by Saudi operatives under the alleged orders of Riyadh in early October. Since then, tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have significantly escalated.
Ankara is demanding the extradition of the suspects in the Khashoggi case to be tried under the Turkish judicial system. Until now, the kingdom has refused to comply with Turkey’s repeated requests over the killing despite the global condemnation it has faced.