The Turkish military operation in Syria looks like it is heading toward an all-out regional crisis.
It has been over a week since Turkish diplomats warned the US administration that Turkey would be forced to act militarily if the United States continued to fund the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“We emphasized that such a step was very wrong,” Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said. “Turkey has reached the limits of its patience. Nobody should expect Turkey to show more patience.” At the time, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to calm Turkish officials by explaining that the support offered to the Kurds was only to help “ensure that local elements are providing security to liberated areas” in Syria. This was far from a reassurance for Turkey, a nation that considers the YPG, and by extension the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of which it forms the backbone, militant terrorist organizations.
Earlier this week, Turkish tanks rolled into the city of Afrin in northern Syria in the first steps of an operation to dislodge YPG forces from the area. So far the attack has displaced 5,000 people and killed scores of civilians according to reports. The operation, ironically dubbed “Olive Branch” has drawn intense criticism from US officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis who told reporters while on a trip to Indonesia that “the violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area in Syria and distracts from the international effort to defeat Daesh.” Turkey, however, has not been perturbed. The latest reports have confirmed that the Turkish military has extended its incursion in Syria to the town of Manbij, about 100km directly to the east of Afrin. This will take its forces to the edge of the US-backed Kurdish presence in the country’s north-east.
The current schism between Anakar and Washington is not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of years of tension over US policy toward the Kurdish people and the role they play in the region. The US has seen the Kurds as a vital asset in the war against extremist elements in the region. Reliable and efficient fighters, the Kurds were indispensable in major battles such the campaign to liberate Mosul in Iraq. In Syria as well, Kurdish units have provided vital assistance to coalition efforts, most notably in the recent liberation of the ISIS capital city, Raqqa.
The US inevitably has had to deal with the clashes of Kurdish interests with those of other partners in the regions. In September, when the Kurds of Iraq voted for independence in a national referendum, it sparked a frenzy within the Iraqi government. The US promptly condemned the independence plan, staving off what would have surely lead to violence.
A month later, when the Iraqi military attacked Kurdish positions in the city of Kirkuk, America once again had to step in to prevent an escalation.
With the Turks, the situation is even more complicated, as the nation has been at war with its Kurdish minority since the late 1970’s. Turkey has already had to deal with the Kurds being an active participant in the war on ISIS for years. The idea of a permanent Kurdish fighting force on their border being funded by the United States is intolerable to them.
On Wednesday, President Trump responded to Turkish military action warning that Turkey’s continued operations ran the risk of “conflict between Turkish and American forces” stationed in the region. It is important to understand the implications of Trump’s words, which were essentially an implicit threat of attacking Turkish units if they continued advancing in Syria. There are US troops in Manbij. Trump would certainly not hesitate to defend American members of the armed forces if they were in danger from a Turkish offensive. This means that right now there is a standoff between Tukey and the US. How the events of the next several days play out in northern Syria will have profound effects on the future of US-Turkish relations and the progress of the region.