Turkey’s Actions in Syria Harm U.S. National Security
President Trump is leading the United States to a historic victory against the Islamic State terrorists. On the brink of total U.S. victory against ISIS, Turkey’s Erdogan has ordered an aggressive air and ground military campaign against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS, as well as against other Kurdish militias in Syria.
U.S. Military Campaign Against ISIS
In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Trump noted the great progress made against ISIS::
Last year, I also pledged that we would work with our allies to extinguish ISIS from the face of the Earth. One year later, I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria. But there is much more work to be done.
In light of recent victories against ISIS at the hands of the United States, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and other armed forces, ISIS is on the verge of total defeat. Since the U.S.-backed coalition began its campaign against the Islamic State in September 2014, ISIS has lost over 40,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria, an area roughly the size of Ohio. And on the day President Trump was inaugurated, there were an estimated 35,000 ISIS fighters. That translates into a loss of roughly 96% of its territory since 2014 and a loss of over 97% of ISIS terrorists over the past year. The Defense Department notes that the remaining territory is mostly barren desert. To illustrate the dramatic territorial losses of the Islamic State, the U.S. State Department released a map last December.
The Kurdish Contribution to the Fight Against ISIS
Unfortunately, many of these gains against ISIS are now at serious risk. Erdogan is intent on destroying the primary fighting force against ISIS -- the SDF. The SDF is comprised of about 85,000 fighters including the male YPG militia, the female YPJ militia, and Arab militias, and is a U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The Kurdish presence in the SDF is estimated at between 40–70%. The SDF was established at the behest of the United States in October 2015 under the control of the YPG.
Since the formation of the SDF, this Kurdish-led force has won at least 16 military campaigns against ISIS with no losses. The SDF led the critically important Raqqa campaign (2016–2017) that resulted in the fall of Raqqa as the capital of the Islamic State in October 2017.
President Trump described it as “a critical breakthrough in [the] worldwide campaign to defeat ISIS.” He added that it would be necessary for these Kurdish-led forces to play a central role in the transition to a stable and peaceful post-war Syria: “With the liberation of ISIS’s capital and the vast majority of its territory, the end of the ISIS caliphate is in sight. We will soon transition into a new phase in which we will support local security forces, de-escalate violence across Syria, and advance the conditions for lasting peace...”
Turkey’s Military Intervention Against the Kurds
The Turkish military announced on January 20 that it had launched “Operation Olive Branch” in and around Afrin, a city north of Aleppo in northwest Syria. The stated purpose of this military operation is to “establish [Turkish] security and stability on [its] borders and region” and to “eliminate” Kurdish and ISIS “terrorists” in order “to save our friends and brothers… from their oppression and cruelty” and as a matter of “self defense.”
Turkey, along with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), and other groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, have been engaged in battle with Kurdish forces in Afrin that have already resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians with reports of as many as 500 killed and wounded. According to Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), “Turkey's only genuine enemy in Syria is the Kurds” and “supports anything that harms the Kurds.”
Subsequent to the onset of Turkish military hostilities, the U.S.-backed SDF rejected Turkish assertions of the presence of Islamic State terrorists. Redur Xelil, a senior SDF official, noted that “the whole world knows Daesh (Islamic State) is not present in Afrin.”
On January 24, Turkish President Erdogan said that Turkey would expand its military campaign about 60 miles east to the Kurdish-held Syrian city of Manbij with a population of about 100,000. Erdogan announced that “with the Olive Branch operation, we have once again thwarted the game of those sneaky forces whose interests in the region are different” and “starting in Manbij, we will continue to thwart their game.”
President Trump told Erdogan to “deescalate” the Turkish military campaign and “limit its military actions.” On January 25, the Pentagon warned that “Afrin operations are impeding the task to eliminate ISIS,” accusing Turkey of assisting the Islamic State by attacking Kurdish militias. Erdogan instead declared a substantial expansion of Turkey’s military campaign, saying that they would not only “clean up” the city of Manbij, but “will continue [Turkey’s] fight until there is no terrorist on our border leading to Iraq.”
Turkey’s Two-Faced Approach to ISIS
Turkey’s approach to ISIS has proven two-faced. Turkey is an unreliable ally against ISIS and its attacks on the Kurdish forces could help ISIS snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, harming the critical national security interests of the United States.
Turkey has been slow to commit to fighting ISIS, and its sporadic strikes were often reprisals for ISIS attacks on Turkey. Claims that Turkey steadfastly opposes ISIS are contradicted by numerous reports, as well as satellite images of ISIS oil being transported from Syria to Turkey. During a May 2015 U.S. special forces raid against ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, a vast amount of evidence was collected “undeniable” proving direct dealing between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members in the oil trade.
Abu Sayyaf was responsible for smuggling oil from Syria’s eastern oilfields. According to a senior Western official “the links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.”
According to a May 2015 NBC News report, “…oil and gas sales through Turkey are seen as the second-biggest source of ISIS financing…” In a separate report that year, NBC revealed that ISIS made approximately $10 million a month from its oil trade, down from a high of $40 million earlier in 2015.
Turkey had long served as a gateway for foreign ISIS fighters to enter Syria, turning a blind eye and even stamping their passports. This Turkish-ISIS collusion fits a pattern of Turkey’s open or tacit support for other jihadi groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Hamas.
Turkey Threatens US Forces in Syria
Turkey’s military push against the SDF would be an unprecedented assault by one NATO member (Turkey) against a fellow NATO member (the U.S.). Last November the Pentagon reported that the U.S. had deployed over 1,700 personnel in Syria to support the SDF. Erdogan demanded that U.S. forces leave Manbij but was rebuffed by Central Command Commander General Joseph Vogel, who stated that withdrawal from Manbij is “not something we are looking into.” If Turkey continues its planned assault on Manbij, it would directly threaten U.S. troops. According to UK Major General Felix Gedney, the Deputy Commander of the Combined Joint Task Force to defeat ISIS, Turkey’s military operations place the coalition’s mission to defeat ISIS “at risk.”
Bekir Bozdag, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, told CNN that the Turkish offensive would “go to Manbij” if the YPG does not withdraw. Bozdag directly threatened U.S. troops, saying that “if US soldiers wear terrorist uniforms or are among the terrorists then… we will see them as… terrorists.”
Resolution of Conflict
In light of the strategic necessity of protecting our Kurdish allies, reports that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster assured Turkey that the U.S. would no longer provide weapons to the YPG are very worrying. If true, it would be a show of U.S. weakness.
The United States and NATO must make it absolutely clear that Turkey must suspend its assault or face serious consequences. This would include sanctions, any necessary use of force to defend U.S. personnel, and exploration of Turkey’s possible expulsion from NATO.
There are already reasons to impose sanctions on Turkey. For one, its purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system requires the U.S. to sanction Turkey and cut off all US arms sales. In addition, the US should punish Turkish violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran. This would include a potential fine of billions of dollars for violations by six Turkish banks.
Considering the critically important role that the SDF and YPG play in wartime and the great influence they will wield in peacetime, it is essential that the U.S. continues to exert its influence in support of our Kurdish allies. That must include full military support and continued arming of the SDF. The defeat of ISIS that President Trump demands must be realized for moral and national security reasons. If President Erdogan gets his way, the SDF is destroyed and ISIS survives. It is essential that President Trump fully backs the SDF and YPG and displays American strength.