People hold flags of Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) as they walk during a protest against Turkish attacks on Afrin, in Hasaka, Syria, January 18, 2018..
(photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)
In the forty-eight hours before Turkish aircraft began bombing positions of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, there was a flurry of activity online by Kurdish activists and others warning US officials that the attack was coming.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, responding to Turkish anger over alleged US plans for training a border force in Syria, told reporters on a flight back from Canada on January 18 that “the entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed.” Two days later Turkish ground forces attacked Kurdish forces in Afrin in northern Syria, marking a serious escalation in the Syrian conflict and opening a new front in the country. It now appears that the US underestimated Ankara’s resolve and has been left playing catch-up.
Over the last several years the US has built an impressive 74-member global coalition to defeat Islamic State. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition, appointed during the Obama administration, has been retained by the Trump administration, providing continuity on US policy in Iraq and Syria.
The problem the US has faced is that its allies don’t get along with each other. The Syrian rebels are close to Turkey and oppose the Syrian regime and the Kurdish YPG.
Turkey views the YPG as an arm of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Since 2015, when a cease-fire between Turkey and the PKK broke down, Turkey has waged a major campaign against the party, warning that conflict with the YPG in Syria was coming.
Turkey's operation in Syria's Kurdish-controlled Afrin region has "de facto" begun with cross-border shelling. (Reuters)
In mid-January reports emerged that the US was planning to build a 30,000-strong “border force” in Syria. Reports quoted coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon saying the “goal of a final force is approximately 30,000.” Both the Syrian regime and Moscow condemned the US plans. “A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders. Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on January 15.
Accusing the US of training a security force that would target Turkey caused the US to put forward several different statements about its intentions. The Department of Defense on January 17 said the US would continue to train local security forces in Syria to stabilize the area and prevent ISIS resurgence.
“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally,” the Pentagon said. “Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate. We will continue to be completely transparent with Turkey about our efforts in Syria to defeat ISIS and stand by our NATO ally in its counter-terrorism efforts.”
Turkey said its plans for a military assault on the YPG in Afrin were already “complete” by mid-January. The US was in a bind – its allies in Syria were about to be attacked by its other ally in Ankara. Erdogan had said on January 9 that Turkey would prevent the forming of a “terror corridor” along its border, a reference to the YPG linking up Afrin with its holdings in eastern Syria.
The Wall Street Journal reported that US officials said the plan for the stabilization force was “poorly conceived, reflecting divisions within the Trump administration over how to shift strategy from the ISIS fight.”
Tillerson didn’t mention Turkey’s threats against the YPG in remarks to the Hoover Institute on January 17. He did emphasize the close partnership with Turkey, and said the US was working with to “address Turkey’s concern with PKK terrorists elsewhere.”
Tillerson also claimed Al-Qaida was attempting to re-establish a base of operations in Idlib, near Afrin. But he didn’t mention the word “Kurds.”
After the Turkish offensive in Afrin had begun, the State Department’s Heather Nauert said the US understood Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns,” but was watching developments in Afrin. “The US is very concerned about the situation in northwest Syria, especially the plight of innocent civilians who are now faced with an escalation in fighting.”
The US administration appears to lack message discipline and consistency on its Syria policy, with the Pentagon and State Department conducting separate policies while Trump eschews leadership.
The Kurds in Afrin may be bearing the consequences of the US inability to craft a clear policy and Washington’s unwillingness to take Ankara’s threats seriously. Kurds, who fought ISIS alongside the US in Syria, also express frustration that the Americans have abandoned them, which further erodes Washington’s credibility in the region.