Turkish Incursion into Northern Syria Signals Turning Point in Anti-ISIS Fight
By Jennifer Cafarella with Leah Danson
Key Takeaway: Turkey is unraveling America’s anti-ISIS partner in northern Syria in order to position itself as a major power broker in planned operations to retake Raqqa City. Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) crossed into Syria to seize the ISIS held border town of Jarablus alongside numerous Turkish- and U.S.-backed Syrian armed opposition groups on August 24. The operation, titled Euphrates Shield, is a turning point in American-Turkish relations and the war against ISIS by fulfilling longstanding American demands for more Turkish involvement in the anti-ISIS fight. Euphrates Shield also aims to prevent the expansion of Kurdish control along the border, however. The U.S. ordered the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Forces (YPG) to withdraw to the east bank of the Euphrates River in accordance with Turkish demands at the start of the operation. Turkey is leveraging Syrian opposition groups it trusts in Jarablus and intentionally sidelining groups that joined the Syrian YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), bringing U.S.- and Turkish- backed opposition factions into direct conflict with the American-backed SDF. The SDF opposed the Turkish incursion and attacked the joint Turkish-Syrian opposition force on August 27. A U.S. defense official announced that the two sides agreed to a “loose” truce on August 30. An unidentified Turkish military source, however, subsequently denied the existence of any such agreement. The Turkish intervention has meanwhile inspired local resistance against the SDF and YPG in Sunni Arab areas including Manbij City, south of Jarablus, and the northern Raqqa countryside. Turkey may exploit this local resistance to unseat the SDF from Manbij City and replace it with a military force that opposes the YPG.
Turkey is unraveling America’s anti-ISIS partner in northern Syria in order to position itself as a major power broker in planned operations to retake Raqqa City. Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) crossed into Syria to seize the ISIS held border town of Jarablus alongside numerous Turkish- and U.S.-backed Syrian armed opposition groups on August 24. The intervention brought the TSK and U.S. backed opposition forces into direct conflict with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s primary ally in the anti-ISIS fight. Turkey notified the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, the Syrian regime, and Russia about the offensive, which it titled “Operation Euphrates Shield.” Turkish Special Operations forces led a joint military force into Jarablus, including an armoredbattalion from Turkey’s Second Army and as many as 5,000 Syrian opposition fighters from groups based in the northern Aleppo countryside including: the Sultan Murad Brigade, Suqour al-Jebel, Jaysh al Tahrir, Jabhat al Shamiya, Nour al Din al Zenki, Faylaq al-Sham, and Ahrar al Sham. ISIS mounted little resistance to the attack, instead withdrawing southwest to the town of al Bab. SDF fighters rejected the Turkish intervention as an “occupation” and attacked the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force. The Turkish intervention meanwhile appears to have emboldened local elements to resist the SDF openly. Sunni Arab elements in Manbij and the Raqqa countryside issued statements rejecting the SDF because of the YPG’s goal to establish an independent Syrian Kurdistan. Turkey likely will continue to advance south in order to unseat the SDF from Manbij and position loyal Syrian opposition forces as necessary ground partners in the operation to retake Raqqa City.
Turkey is leveraging Syrian opposition groups it trusts in Jarablus and intentionally sidelining groups that joined the Syrian YPG-led SDF. Local SDF groups from Jarablus declared the formation of the Jarablus Military Council on August 22 and stated their intent to seize Jarablus. The leader of the Jarablus Military Council (JMC), Abdussatar al-Jadir, was assassinated the following day. The JMC accused Turkish intelligence and attacked the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force on August 27. Turkey launched airstrikes against JMC and SDF positions south of Jarablus in response and has maintained an active air campaign targeting the area. The joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force advanced south, seizing over a dozen villages and reaching the Sajour River by August 29. The JMC nonetheless continues to marshal support from the Aleppo countryside. The SDF-linked Manbij Military Council announced its support for the JMC on August 27. Prominent Manbij Military Council (MMC) member Kataib Shams al Shamal deployed to reinforce the front line south of Jarablus. A delegation of tribal elders in Manbij later declared its support for the JMC on August 28. The escalation between the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition military force and coalescing SDF elements south of Jarablus have redirected the focus of the SDF’s Sunni Arab fighting force at a time when the U.S. intended to prepare for operations to retake Raqqa City.
Turkey’s intervention aimed to sideline the SDF and check the YPG’s rising strength along the Turkish border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey intended to fight the YPG “with the same determination” as fighting ISIS during a visit to Gaziantep on August 28. He also vowed to provide “all necessary support” to Syrians living in Gaziantep who wanted to return to Jarablus, indicating his intent to repopulate Jarablus – and possibly its southern countryside – with Syrian refugees after finishing clearing operations. He will ensure that the refugees that resettle in Syria are Sunni Arabs in order to block future Kurdish activity in the area. Turkey had conditioned its support for the U.S.-led SDF operation to retake Manbij beginning in April 2016 on the mandatory withdrawal of the YPG to the east bank of the Euphrates river after the SDF captured the city, but YPG forces had not withdrawn as of the launch of Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24, despite seizing the city in early August. U.S Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara on August 24 and expressed strong support for the operation. He also ordered the YPG to withdraw from Manbij to the eastern bank of the Euphrates, stating that the group, “will not under any circumstances get American support” if it does not comply. The YPG’s general command chose to back down rather than confront Turkey near Jarablus directly, but has not completely withdrawn as ordered. The YPG released a statement confirming its intent to remain focused on the overall anti-ISIS fight on August 27, signaling its acquiescence to American demands. Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. John L. Dorrian confirmed that the main element of the YPG relocated east of the Euphrates River, but stated that some forces remained to finish IED clearing operations. The YPG confirmed its presence near the front line south of Jarablus on August, but claimed the fighters had crossed back across the river to help evacuate civilians targeted by Turkish airstrikes. It is unclear whether the YPG is participating actively in clashes at the time of writing. U.S. secretary of Defense Ashton Carter acknowledged the YPG’s noncompliance on August 29, stating that the U.S. will “deconflict” and “clarify where the YPG elements of the SDF are and are not.”
Turkey will likely attempt to unseat the SDF’s Manbij Military Council next. The SDF formed the Manbij Military Council to recapture Manbij city on April 5. The SDF’s Manbij Military Council did not include the original Free Syrian Army-affiliated Manbij Military Council, which ISIS displaced in 2013. Turkey’s intervention emboldened the original Manbij Military Council and elements of the local population in Manbij to oppose the SDF openly. The original Manbij Military Council released a statement on August 28 rejecting the SDF and calling for shared control with the SDF over Manbij city. Residents of Manbij reportedly also issued a letter rejecting the SDF on August 28. Rising local dissent in Manbij follows a statement by Sunni Arab tribes in the Raqqa countryside that pledged to fight against the YPG in the area. Turkey may capitalize on local resistance to the SDF to recapture Manbij and install the original Manbij Miltiary Council. The commander of the U.S.-and Turkish-backed Sultan Murad Division, Col. Ahmed Osman, appeared to confirm this possibility. He stated that the Euphrates Shield offensive was “certainly heading in the direction of Manbij,” claiming that the YPG force in the area had not withdrawn from the city. Col. Osman stated that he expected Turkish-backed opposition groups would be able to seize Manbij within “a few days.” Turkey expanded its involvement after the SDF began to resist the intervention and appears willing to sustain an increased deployment. The TSK sent ten additional tanks and the same number of armored vehicles on August 25 and another six tanks after hostilities escalated on August 27. An unnamed Turkish official stated that Turkey would “continue operations until we are convinced that imminent threats against the country's national security have been neutralized” on August 25. The official added that Turkey could be willing to increase its total deployment in Syria to 15,000. A U.S. defense official later announced on August 30 that the Turkish and SDF forces reached a “loose agreement” to cease fighting and instead “focus on the [ISIS] threat.” It remains unclear if the tentative truce will hold as an unidentified Turkish military sources and an unidentified Turkish-backed opposition commander subsequently denied the existence of such an agreement.
Composition of the joint Turkish-Syrian opposition force
Operation Euphrates Shield demonstrates Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s willingness and ability to use military force to prevent the creation of an independent Syrian Kurdistan along the Turkish border even after an aggressive purge of the TSK following the failed July 15 coup attempt. The total initial Turkish deployment was close to 450 troops including 150 Special Forces plus 200 soldiers from the armored units and additional soldiers responsible for coordinating Turkey’s close air support and artillery support. Turkish Special Operations Forces under the command of Lieutenant General Zekai Aksakalli led the operation. LTG Akasakalli had remained loyal to Erdogan during the coup and was later promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. His Deputy, Brigadier General Salih Terzi was in operational command of Special Forces along the Syrian border before the coup. Terzi was allegedly involved in the coup attempt and was killed by pro-Erdogan security forces that night. The Turkish mechanized component deployed to Jarablus is meanwhile likely from the Second Army’s, 5th Armored Brigade, which is based in Gaziantep and deployable on short notice. The leadership of this mechanized component is unclear. 5th Armored Brigade Commander Major General Murat Soysal was detained after the coup attempt and his replacement is unknown at the time of writing. Erdogan’s confidence in the loyalty and capability of the Turkish Special Forces and Turkish second Army indicates his success thus far in consolidating the TSK under his own personal control without completely neutering its combat effectiveness.
Turkey’s intervention in Jarablus is a turning point in American-Turkish relations and the war against ISIS. Erdogan’s willingness to commit military force to the anti-ISIS fight fulfils longstanding American demands for Turkey to increase its contribution to the anti-ISIS mission. The recapture of Jarablus and ongoing operations to clear remaining ISIS-held portions of the border west of Jarablus have set the desired conditions for an offensive to retake Raqqa city by eliminating ISIS’s final supply line from Turkey. The YPG’s decision thus far to avoid open war with the Turkish forces indicates that the U.S. may be able to refocus the YPG on the planned Raqqa offensive. The infighting between the joint Turkish-Syrian opposition force and the Sunni Arab components of the SDF is a major complication, however. American planning relies on the Sunni Arab component of the SDF to provide the bulk of the fighting force for the Raqqa offensive, because a YPG-led operation would likely alienate civilians in the Sunni Arab-majority Raqqa City. A prolonged clash between the SDF and the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force would derail planned operations to retake Raqqa City. Turkey may now offer its own military support and that of Turkish-backed opposition forces for an operation in Raqqa as an alternative to the SDF, positioning Turkey as a major power player in northern Syria.