Syria’s “War after ISIS” Begins as Turkey Attacks America’s Anti-ISIS Partner
Jan 20, 2018 - Press ISW
by: Jennifer Cafarella and Elizabeth Teoman with Bradley Hanlon
Key Takeaway: Turkey launched an air-ground operation against the American partner force in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in Afrin district northwest of Aleppo City on January 20th, 2018. Turkey’s goal is to extend its buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey may subsequently attack the town of Manbij, east of Afrin on the banks of the Euphrates River. Turkey’s operations threaten to provoke a widening Turkish-Kurdish war that could unravel the U.S. stabilization effort in eastern Syria, place U.S. service members in Manbij at risk, and force the U.S. to reconsider support for the YPG.
Turkey launched an air-ground operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to extend Turkey’s buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. Forces from Turkey’s Second Army launched a three-pronged ground attack – “Operation Olive Branch” – against YPG forces northwest of Aleppo City on January 20th, 2018. The Turkish Air Force and Syrian armed opposition groupsare supporting the operation. Turkey cited the right to self-defense in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter as a legal justification for its operation. Turkey’s immediate objective is to extend its buffer zone to sever the YPG’s access to the Turkish border northwest of Aleppo City. Turkey previously seized and secured a buffer zone from the outskirts of Afrin to the east bank of the Euphrates River in northern Aleppo Province beginning on August 24th, 2016. Turkey may pursue the full defeat of YPG forces in the Aleppo countryside after securing the border. Turkey may attack terrain east of Afrin that YPG forces seized in 2016 while the Syrian opposition attempted to defend Aleppo City against a Russian- and Iranian-backed Bashar al Assad regime offensive. Initial Turkish airstrikes targeted the YPG-held Menagh airbase north of Aleppo City on January 20th. These strikes may indicate Turkish intent to seize the airbase and the nearby city of Tel Rifaat.
Turkey secured Russia’s permission for the operation and likely negotiated a new “de-escalation” line north of Aleppo City. Turkish Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan met with Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu in Moscow on January 18th to coordinate the operation. Turkey’s air operations on January 20th demonstrate that Turkey secured Russian permission to conduct close air support in Syrian airspace. Turkey also took steps in coordination with Russia to mitigate the risk of a Syrian regime escalation. Assad threatened to shoot down Turkish warplanes on January 18th while Turkey and Russia were de-conflicting operations. Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli dismissed the regime’s threats as “mere thoughts” of a state with “limited capacity” and signaled that the Russian anti-air systems in Syria were Turkey’s only concern. Turkey deployed electronic warfare systems to counter possible regime anti-air attacks and to enable Turkey to respond to YPG artillery fire against Turkish territory. Turkey likely cleared the deployment of these systems with Russia during the Moscow visit. Turkey and Russia likely also agreed on a future “de-escalation” line of contact that balances their interests in Aleppo Province. The exact location of this future line of contact is unclear from openly available information. Russia withdrew its forces from Afrindistrict, likely to Aleppo City. Russia’s goal in the negotiation with Turkey was likely to ensure that pro-regime forces can secure and defend Aleppo City against possible future attack.
Erdogan may next attack Manbij, where U.S. forces operate. Erdogan demanded a “handover” of Manbij on January 14th and reiterated his intent to take the city by force after operations in Afrin conclude on January 20th. He is likely providing covert support to Arab resistance against YPG dominance in Manbij that escalated alongside his demand for the handover of the city. Arab tribal leaders in Manbij issued a list of demands to the SDF on January 16th that amount to the dismantlement of the existing YPG-dominated governing structure in the city. The tribal demands followed the outbreak of large-scale protests against the YPG in Manbij beginning on January 12th, which the SDF blamed on Turkey. A car bomb targeted senior SDF military figures in Manbij on January 20th. The combination of tribal pressure and targeted attacks could reflect covert Turkish efforts to set conditions for future military operations to seize Manbij with local support.
The U.S. strategy for de-escalation with Turkey has failed. Turkey’s operations threaten to provoke a widening Turkish-Kurdish war that could unravel the U.S. stabilization effort in eastern Syria and force the U.S. to reconsider support for the YPG. Possible Turkish follow-on operations against Manbij put U.S. forces directly at risk. American military forces are patrolling front lines in Manbij as part of a U.S. effort “to prevent security incidents from occurring, to observe and report whatever security situation that they saw and to reassure” both Turkey and the SDF. The U.S. must abandon this tactical approach to de-escalation and acknowledge the scale of the rift with Turkey. The U.S. cannot prevent ISIS’s resurgence, pivot toward countering Assad, contain Iran, or pursue a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war if Turkey’s priority remains thwarting U.S. policy.