After a horrific suicide bombing by IS at a Kurdish wedding in eastern Turkey had slaughtered more than fifty people on Saturday, Turkey moved to expel the Islamic State (IS) from Jarabulus in eastern Aleppo Province at about 4 AM on Wednesday morning. IS was swept from this last major border town in Syria, a key gateway for resources to the outside world, around ten hours later.
Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD saw Turkey put troops and tanks over the border publicly for the first time, and allow the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded and other mainstream Syrian rebels who have been battling IS for years to use Turkish territory to launch the assault. It was supported by airstrikes from the international anti-IS coalition.
For Turkey, this is a strong indication of a change in her threat-perception vis-à-vis IS, but it is also about a (correctly) perceived threat of what was to follow IS.
Since 1984, Turkey has battled an insurgency from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group that adhered to a mixture of Marxism-Leninism, Kurdish nationalism, and a cult of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK, a designated terrorist organization, has set up a transnational political-military structure, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), that has branches in the Kurdish-majority sections of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In Syria, the PKK’s branch is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Inside Syria, many YPG-flagged fighters are battle-hardened PKK soldiers. A considerable number are Syrians from the time when the PKK was a Syria-based instrument of the Assad regime and Moscow against NATO’s Turkey during the Cold War and was allowed to recruit widely among Kurds. There are also many foreigners, the bulk Turkish citizens, as the YPG’s casualty figures show.
Since the Assad regime’s withdrawal from northern Syria in July 2012, the YPG/PKK, which in addition to its links with Assad and Russia has “a history of strong ties” to Iran, operated in de facto alignment with the pro-regime coalition to control several cantons, though this understanding has experienced tensions, notably in the last week, which were resolved by Russian mediation.
The YPG’s cantons were expanded into a wide swathe of territory on the Syria-Turkey border in large measure because the YPG has, since October 2014, received air support from the U.S.-led coalition to battle IS, displacing the takfiris and sometimes—for reasons of demographic durability—expelling Arab inhabitants in acts that amount to war crimes. Occasionally the YPG acts outside this framework to remove obstacles to its statelet, such as in February when it used Russian airstrikes to attack Western-backed rebels.
The YPG now fights through a front-group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes Sunni Arab and Christian units. It is the SDF that the coalition formally supports and which has become its favoured anti-IS instrument. Western support for an organization Turkey considers not only terrorist but an existential threat is a large measure of the explanation for why Turkey has proven such a troublesome ally in the anti-IS coalition.
Turkey long viewed the PKK and IS as equivalent threats, but knew the world would never allow IS to last, so at bottom preferred IS’s statelet on her border to the PKK’s. This did not mean Turkey “supported” IS, or not in the direct and conspiratorial way some—including the Russians—have suggested. It just meant Ankara had other priorities, as does the YPG itself, despite its rote self-description as an “anti-IS force”. And Turkey’s perception that YPG-held territory against her border is a threat is not solely paranoia, as the repeated threats of YPG members testify.
The Aftermath of Manbij
Last year, Turkey had agreed with the Coalition that the YPG would remain east of the Euphrates River and in exchange Turkey would not intervene in the area it now has to imposed a “safe zone“. Instead U.S.- and Turkish-backed rebel groups would be enabled to take this pocket, containing IS’s three urban strongholds in eastern Aleppo: Jarabulus, Manbij, and al-Bab.
There was some dispute over the exact composition of the rebel force—the West does not like Turkey favourite Ahrar al-Sham—but a compact was nonetheless reached, and Turkey stood down from the “safe zone” idea.
The YPG violated the agreement by crossing west of the Euphrates in December, and on 31 May a U.S.-backed, YPG-led offensive against Manbij began, concluding successfully on 12 August.
Making the best of it, Ankara publicly supported the Manbij offensive after securing some guarantees from the U.S., namely on the composition of the offensive force (2,000 local Arabs, 500 YPG) and the political arrangements in the aftermath (YPG withdrawal, local Arab rule).
The notion of YPG-dominated forces taking Raqqa City is deeply problematic: it is unclear the YPG are willing (or even able) to do so, and is clear what the negative effects would be, increased support for IS among them. Nevertheless, there was some hope within the coalition that Manbij could be the model for liberated Raqqa. This has already, predictably, started to go wrong.
“We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij,” said Hassan Hamidi, an activist in Manbij. “But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another.” The PYD’s defence is that this is a temporary fix in a chaotic situation. Perhaps. But the YPG/PYD has proven that despite an ostensible ideological evolution it remains beholden to the PKK’s authoritarian past.
With the twin pressures of IS’s internal attacks and the YPG’s maximalism, which the U.S. has proven (despite its capability) unwilling to restrain, Turkey has evidently decided to take a leaf out of the YPG’s book by creating facts-on-the-ground first and then negotiating with the coalition about how to proceed. Ankara clearly engaged in broad diplomacy before this action—probably with Damascus, Tehran, Moscow, and certainly with Washington—but the purpose and messaging in each venue remains largely opaque, except with the U.S. where the action itself is a message against the U.S.’s current policy. Still, the possibility of a post-coup Turkish retrenchment or re-orientation to Moscow’s view of Syria would appear to have been decisively refuted.
Had Turkey not intervened, the YPG/SDF would have taken al-Bab next and besieged a pocket containing Western-backed, Turkey-friendly rebels that the YPG has previously assaulted on one side around Azaz, and IS-held ground on the other side, including Jarabulus. If the YPG then eliminated the rebels, it would have left the coalition no choice but to enable the YPG takeover of the rest of the pocket since it would be held by IS.
Turkey’s intervention serves the coalition’s interests and its own: it damages IS, increases the chances of a political settlement in Syria, and opens the potential to revive some of the agreements on constraining the Syrian PKK that were rendered moot by events.
IS appears to have largely withdrawn in advance of the fight, in-keeping with its military tactics that prioritize rural zones and force-preservation. But the restricted access to the outside world is an obvious plus.
There is an outside chance this opens the space for some pluralism within YPG-held territories, perhaps allowing in the Rojava Peshmerga, which have been forcibly denied access so far—with the alleged encouragement of the Assad regime and Iran.
The more concrete and important effects are that Turkey has removed the YPG west of the Euphrates and emboldened the mainstream opposition. The fait accompli in forcing the redeployment of the YPG, as much a message to Washington as the YPG, was ratified by the U.S. Vice President, and actually helps the U.S. recover some credibility with the opposition, which resents the U.S.’s unequal support for the YPG. The rebellion’s own credibility has also been assisted by a swift demonstration that the YPG is not the only effective anti-IS ally available in Syria.
Some groups involved in the Jarabulus offensive, notably Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi of recent infamy, were allegedly involved in merger talks with the rebranded al-Qaeda, spurred not by ideological considerations but practical ones: the failure of Western support and the proven utility of insurgent unity. Now a realistic alternative to the extremists has opened, and al-Zengi specifically has in the past asserted itself boldly against the jihadists when it has the ability.
Jarabulus provides a launch-pad for the expansion of the area under the control of the mainstream opposition, a potential counter-weight to the jihadi-led gains in Aleppo. Al-Rai and al-Bab are the likely next targets of Turkish-backed forces. Additionally, the YPG left Arab SDF units in Manbij and these Western-vetted units could potentially defect from the YPG if given a better offer by Turkey. With or without Manbij, however, this would create a serious base of moderate rebels.
By strengthening the mainstream armed opposition, Turkey has thrown a wrench into the strategy of the pro-regime coalition, notably accelerated by the Russian intervention last year, to destroy all acceptable opponents of Assad, leaving a binary choice between the dictatorship and Islamist terrorists. Turkey has therefore made a serious contribution in the direction of peace and stability in Syria.
In the immediate-run, Turkey has helped cut-off IS’s access to the outside world and likely obstructed a PKK statelet all along her border. Into the longer-term, Turkey’s short-term escalation, especially if built upon, has improved the prospects of ending Syria’s war via a political solution. Such a solution requires that the parties have rough parity and Turkey bolstering the power and reach of the mainstream rebels, while putting some checks on the PKK, are important steps towards this.
UPDATE (25 AUG 2016): I gave some comments to the German newspaper BILD today on this subject, a précis of which can be read here. The summary is that the PYD’s feelings of American “betrayal” and having “lost” in Syria because they have been prevented from linking their eastern cantons to Efrin are likely misplaced: an overstretch in that way would have left the PYD—and the Kurdish civilians under their rule—vulnerable to IS behind-the-lines attacks, and in the long-term the eastern cantons are more politically durable than the areas west of the Euphrates, which are not Kurdish-majority and about which Turkey is especially concerned.
Beyond that, enforcing some limits on the PYD’s maximalism is a positive move—for the anti-IS war and the regional stability that requires. A PYD takeover of these areas and the organization’s sense of invincibility was leading to actions that could trigger further conflicts. There is also the fact, noted by Faysal Itani, that even on the narrower question of Turkey and the PKK, this action might well “raise Turkish-PYD tensions in the short term,” but “a curb on Kurdish expansion may actually de-escalate Turkish-Kurdish tensions, so long as the United States remains engaged in the war.”
In opposition to this—in BILD, and at greater length in The International Business Times—was Michael Horowitz of the Levantine Group who, to oversimplify his argument, wrote that the U.S. had thrown away the trust and goodwill of a proven anti-terrorism instrument it had spent a year building up (the SDF) on a gamble that groups of dubious capacity and ideology are capable of clearing and holding these areas. And doing this to placate Turkey, which Horowitz is not alone in judging an unreliable ally, made it even worse. By letting down the PYD, Horowitz argued, the U.S. had reinforced the sense that she does not stick by her allies—at a time when Russia and Iran have stood by theirs at great cost—which damages the U.S.’s position throughout the whole region.