Turkey May Launch New Ground Offensive against US-Backed Forces in Syria
Key Takeaway: Turkey’s President Erdogan is trying to coerce President Trump into shifting American support from Kurdish forces toward Turkey’s proxies in Syria, which include al Qaeda-linked elements. Erdogan may launch a new ground operation into Syria in order to create ground realities that could force the U.S. to reconsider his demands.
Erdogan may open a new front line in his campaign against America’s primary anti-ISIS partner in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in coming days. Erdogan seeks to coerce President Trump into accepting Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition groups as alternative ground partners to the SDF in the fight against ISIS. The YPG dominates the SDF and is the Syrian branch of the Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is waging an active insurgency against the Turkish state. Erdogan views the YPG’s ascendancy in northern Syria as his primary national security threat. Erdogan has signaled that he will launch a cross-border operation to seize the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad, north of Raqqa City. Turkish forces are shelling the town and local sources indicate that Turkish warplanes are flying sorties above it, although without dropping munitions thus far. Unconfirmed reports also indicate Turkish-backed opposition groups may be amassing for an offensive. Erdogan may launch the operation before his upcoming meeting with President Trump in Washington on May 16-17.
Erdogan’s plan is to siphon Syrian Arab support away from the SDF, which would block America’s planned Raqqa operation. Tel Abyad is an Arab-majority town currently under military control by the Syrian Kurdish (YPG). An operation against Tel Abyad, if it occurs, would open a fissure between Arabs and the YPG in northern Syria that could be sufficient to neutralize the SDF as a reliable American partner force for the Raqqa operation. Turkey likely also intends to undermine Arab support for the SDF’s larger governance project in northeastern Syria by providing an option for independent Arab governance outside YPG control.
Erdogan has been threatening an operation in Tel Abyad for some time. Erdogan had proposed an alternative approach to the US plan to seize Raqqa City in interviews and in meetings with U.S. officials in February and March 2017. Erdogan offered to use Turkish troops and allied opposition fighters to create a 12-mile wide corridor from Tel Abyad to Raqqa City. The US was reportedly unsatisfied with the proposal, which offered to commit only 3,000 Turkish soldiers. The Turks reportedly claimed to be able to field 10,000 Turkish-trained opposition forces, but those numbers have not materialized. The U.S. rejection did not change Erdogan’s commitment to block the Raqqa operation, however. Erdogan warned on April 3, 2017 that he intended to launch “new surprises” targeting ISIS, the PKK, and the YPG. Turkey recently tested America’s resolve to defend the YPG in eastern Syria. Turkey launched airstrikes against YPG headquarters in eastern Syria and YPG proxy fighters in northern Iraq on April 25, 2017. The U.S. condemned the strike but did not take action in response.
Erdogan may use an operation against Tel Abyad to demonstrate his ability to rally Arab tribal support in order to force the U.S. to reconsider. Turkey convened 50 Sunni Arab tribal leaders from eastern Syria in the Turkish town of Sanliurfa, north of Tel Abyad, in mid-March to discuss resistance against the YPG. Turkey formed a new Syrian Arab military force named the “Eastern Shield Army” on April 19, likely drawing from the tribes represented at the summit in Sanliurfa. The group includes members from the al-Nai’m tribe, which operates near Tel Abyad, in addition to rebel fighters linked to al Qaeda that operated in eastern Syria before the rise of ISIS in late 2014. The group’s influence reportedly extends through Raqqa and into Deir ez Zour Province, although the size of its fighting force remains unclear. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik stated on April 21 that continued cooperation between the U.S. and the Syrian Kurdish YPG threatens to create “long-term instability” between Arabs and Kurds, signaling Turkey’s intent to exploit Arab discontent with YPG domination in northern Syria.
An operation against Tel Abyad would mark the start of a second phase in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria and its first major ground operation directly against the YPG. Turkey began its intervention in August 2016. It first seized the Syrian border town of Jarablus, west of Tel Abyad, from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) on August 26, 2016 using a similar partnered rebel force. Turkey then cleared the remainder of the ISIS-held Syrian-Turkish border and pushed south to recapture the ISIS-held town of al Bab on February 23. Turkey had only limited success gaining U.S. support for its operations and has not managed to weaken America’s commitment to the SDF. The U.S. provided intermittent support to Turkey’s operations against ISIS but blocked Turkey’s move to attack the SDF near al Bab. Erdogan’s resolve to prevent the SDF from taking Raqqa City has not diminished. President Trump congratulated Erdogan for his victory in the Turkish referendum earlier this month, which may have emboldened Erdogan to start a new phase of his Syrian campaign. Erdogan reciprocated on April 28, stating “I believe that we will open a fresh page with Trump” in a conference in Istanbul.
Turkey’s alternative plan for Raqqa is unacceptable even if Turkey secures large-scale Arab buy in. The Syrian opposition forces that Turkey is using to support its operations include elements linked to al Qaeda, such as Ahrar al Sharqiya. Turkey will likely also use the Salafi jihadi group – and al Qaeda ally – Ahrar al Sham, which has messaged its willingness to participate alongside Turkey in operations to seize Raqqa. Turkey previously used Ahrar al Sham as a logistical backbone for the first phase of the Euphrates Shield operations in northern Aleppo. The form of governance that Turkey is emplacing in its de facto safe zone is meanwhile antithetical to U.S. objectives. Turkey is allowing groups like Ahrar al Sham to implement social control, for example imprisoning members of a local governing council. The US cannot allow groups like Ahrar al Sham to dominate governance in a post-ISIS Raqqa because it would create a permissive environment for al Qaeda in the long term. The U.S. must contain the escalating Turkish-YPG war, and should accept delays in the timeframe for the Raqqa operation in order to do so. Defeating ISIS must remain a priority, but the U.S. risks producing more dangerous futures by rushing into clearing operations in Raqqa under current conditions. The possible dangerous outcomes of a Raqqa operation on current trajectory include a failure to recapture the city due to a war between Turkey and allied Arabs and the YPG or an al-Qaeda rise to power in Raqqa after its recapture from ISIS.