In the wake of threats by Ankara to launch an offensive in northern Syria in areas where US forces are present, US President Donald Trump spoke with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
In the discussions, Trump reportedly urged Turkey not to launch a military operation in eastern Syria, where the US is working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat ISIS.
The call came after Turkey vowed to launch an offensive in eastern Syria, with Erdogan on Wednesday telling an audience that “within a matter of days” an offensive would be launched east of the Euphrates
River. “I am particularly underscoring that our target is not the US soldiers by any means, but members of the terrorist organization operating in the region.”
Turkey would make the area “livable” and return land to its “true owners.” These comments were directed against the Kurdistan Workers Party, (PKK) which Turkey accuses of playing a major role in eastern Syria.
However the SDF, which includes elements that Ankara says are linked to the PKK, is the main US partner in eastern Syria. The US and SDF are fighting ISIS, and the US has sought to prevent a Turkish offensive by launching joint patrols with Turkey near the city of Manbij and erecting observation points along the Turkish border with Syria. But Turkey sees this as the US shielding the “terrorists” from an attack.
Turkey claims there is no longer “any threat” from ISIS in Syria, and has sought to accuse the US of purposely slowing down its offensive against ISIS. However, the US says that its goal is not only the defeat of ISIS but also stabilization of eastern Syria. This will include training 30,000 security forces which the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said is only 20% complete.
It also means the US wants to use eastern Syria to leverage removing Iran from the rest of Syria, a goal the Trump administration has articulated in the last six months. Therefore the US role in eastern Syria is not only about defeating ISIS, but a more long term commitment. Turkey has slammed the US training of local forces as “unacceptable,” and accused Washington of building a terror army.
After Erdogan said Turkey would launch an operation it was the US turn to characterize Turkey’s threats as unacceptable. A Pentagon spokesman characterized any “unilateral military action into northeast Syria by any party, particularly as US personnel may be present,” as a grave concern and an unacceptable action.
Nevertheless Turkey’s media went down to the border with Syria near Tel Abyad as the offensive appeared imminent on Thursday. Syrian refugees said they wanted Turkey to move forward. The Syrians, many of them Arabs who had been displaced by ISIS and subsequent fighting, blamed the PKK and its allies for preventing them from returning. “We expect Turkish army to clear the region,” some told Anadolu. “We are ready to extend support,” they said. “Only Erdogan defends our rights.”
Ethnic, religious and nationalist statements have increased around the threatened operation by Ankara. In a speech to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on December 14, the Turkish leader claimed that Manbij, an area held by the SDF is “a place where Arabs live, but they have surrendered the area to the terror organization.” The speech included references to “cleanse” and “remove” those currently in charge of Manbij. Because the SDF has many Kurdish members, this is interpreted as an anti-Kurdish sentiment. Syrian rebel groups, who initially signed on to oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, have now said they are ready to send 15,000 fighters to assist Turkey fight against the mostly-Kurdish SDF.
The US has sought to placate Turkey’s concerns. Two US officials, Syrian envoy James Jeffrey and special envoy Joel Rayburn, visited Turkey between December 7 and 10, and appeared to voice interest in working with Turkey in eastern Syria. Turkey’s subsequent threats after the envoys left appear to seek to push Washington on its policy and commitments, and make Washington choose between the SDF and Ankara. Trump phoned Erdogan on Friday after it was clear that the State Department officials had not been able to placate Ankara and after the Pentagon made clear it was not changing its stance in Manbij, on the border or in the fight against ISIS.
A readout of the Trump conversation in Washington noted that the two leaders spoke about their “respective security objectives” in Syria. They also discussed “the fight against terrorism.”
However the fight against terror continues to be interpreted differently in Washington and Ankara. Washington sees ISIS and Iran as the major threat. Ankara sees the PKK and groups linked to it as the major threat. Even the translation of the readout in Turkey and the US appeared different, with Ankara saying the US and Turkey had agreed more “efficient” cooperation, and other sources readouts saying they had agreed more “effective” cooperation. The words are different. It doesn’t appear Washington and Ankara can even agree on which type of cooperation will take place.
The problems facing the Trump administration in Syria will continue until the US articulates the same policy to Ankara as it does to its SDF allies in Syria. There have been constant rumors that US officials indicated to Ankara over the last three years that the US involvement with the SDF was temporary and “tactical,” rather than long term. However US envoy Jeffrey has said the US must address the “root causes” of ISIS rise in Syria in testimony to the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee in November. Since January 2018, when Turkey launched an offensive in Afrin, an area controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group allied with the SDF and which Turkey accuses of being part of the PKK, the US has sought to prevent a Turkey-SDF clash. But Turkey says it is serious about an operation in Manbij and Tel Abyad in northern Syria. It has also raised hopes among mostly Arab Syrian rebels that it will launch this offensive.
To show it is serious, Turkey launched air strikes in Iraq against PKK targets on Thursday. Iraq condemned the attacks, but Turkey said they would continue. While Turkey refrains from similar operations in eastern Syria the Iraq air strikes are symbolic of Ankara’s message to Washington.