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’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing to attack America’s local partner in northern Syria on two fronts along the Turkish border. Russia and the Bashar al Assad regime support his planned operation, which could constrain the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and possibly neutralize American plans to build an SDF-linked “border security force.”
Turkey is using a combination of military and diplomatic pressure to compel Russia and Iran to halt further offensive operations against Syria’s al Qaeda dominated Idlib Province. An Assad-Iranian-Russian conquest of Idlib is not in America’s national security interest.
Any U.S. strategy relying on a partnered force must proceed from a realistic assessment of its capabilities and intentions. The Institute for the Study of War completed an Order of Battle study to evaluate the capabilities and disposition of the ISF. This study also presents an Order of Battle of the PMF to help U.S. decision makers and forces on the ground recognize and remediate the presence of Iranian-backed militias within the ISF.
Al Qaeda is growing stronger in Southern Syria. An assassination campaign targeting mainstream opposition commanders and governance officials is facilitating al Qaeda’s consolidation of power along the borders of Jordan and Israel. Southern Syria stands at increasing risk of becoming a second Idlib Province, which currently serves as a formidable safe haven for al Qaeda.
Afghanistan remains a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS) affiliate in Afghanistan and an American ISIS member in Pakistan coordinated an attack attempt in the U.S. in early 2016. ISIS seized at least one district in northwestern Afghanistan in early November, and is assembling new foreign fighter units. ISIS will use this safe haven to conduct new attacks abroad.
The ‘de-escalation zone’ in Syria brokered by the U.S, Russia, and Jordan threatens the strategic interests of the U.S. and its allies. The deal fails to constrain Iran and al Qaeda despite the decreased violence in Southwest Syria.
Iran provided decisive military support to compel Iraqi Kurds to surrender in Kirkuk, Iraq, on October 16, 2017. Military forces from three major Iranian proxies participated in the operation: Katai’b Hezbollah, Asai’b Ahl al Haq, and the Badr Organization. Iran did not attempt to outshine Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in public. Iran instead allowed Abadi to take credit, while quietly positioning its proxies to influence Kirkuk in the future.
Turkey is cooperating with al Qaeda to threaten the Syrian Kurdish YPG in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intervention in Idlib Province is setting conditions for a de facto safe haven for jihadists in Syria that will jeopardize the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda.
Russia has likely exploited recent tensions between Hungary and Ukraine to support its campaign to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its neighbors. The Kremlin has also revived its subversion in Western Ukraine focusing on minorities’ autonomy issues. It is unlikely that the Kremlin intends to create an insurgency there as it did in Eastern Ukraine, but it may create another fissure that destabilizes Kyiv.