Yesterday Turkey took the unprecedented step of sending special forces and tanks over its border into Syria, capturing the town of Jarablus that was being held by the Islamic State. The attack, which appears to have been timed to coincide with the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden in Ankara, was no surprise to U.S. officials. American A-10s and F-16s provided cover for the Turkish and Syrian troops on the ground, a U.S. defense official said, and the U.S. was intimately involved in planning and providing intelligence for the operation.
Erdogan made it clear that while the immediate target of the operation was ISIS (which had claimed responsibility for the recent suicide bombing of a wedding in Ganziatep), the broader goal of the incursion was to push back Kurdish forces attempting to create a land bridge between their cantons in Syria’s north.
And lest the message somehow get lost, Turkey sent more tanks over the border today, demanding that Kurdish fighters withdraw to their positions east of the Euphrates. Reuters:
Defence Minister Fikri Isik said preventing the Kurdish PYD party – the political arm of the YPG – from uniting Kurdish cantons east of Jarablus with those further west was a priority.
“Islamic State should be completely cleansed, this is an absolute must. But it’s not enough for us … The PYD and the YPG militia should not replace Islamic State there,” Isik told Turkish broadcaster NTV.
“The PYD’s biggest dream is to unify the western and eastern cantons. We cannot let this happen,” he said.
Turkey is reported to have lobbed some shells over at the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led grouping of rebel forces that have been the United States’ main partner in its fight against ISIS. Earlier this year, in May, the SDF made a bold push across the Euphrates, capturing the town of Manbij from ISIS. Ankara reportedly acquiesced to the move, having been assured by Washington that the assault would be predominantly Arab-led, and that the Kurds would withdraw their troops once the town was taken.
For its part, the United States appears to be backing the Turks: Defense Minister Isik said that he had been assured by Washington that the Kurdish withdrawal would be complete within the week. The decision by the Washington to go along with Ankara has created some unenviable spin challenges for our diplomats. Here is President Barack Obama’s point man for the anti-ISIS coalition trying valiantly to square a circle:
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) August 25, 2016
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) August 25, 2016
The optics leave much to be desired: here is the United States waffling once again in its support of yet another Middle East ally. And despite Secretary John Kerry’s saying that the Kurds are complying and withdrawing (which might indicate that the Kurds had been consulted on this move ahead of time), Turkey’s Anadolu reports that fights around Manbij are ongoing.
The other dog that didn’t bark is sitting in Moscow. The Kremlin has barely uttered a word about Turkey’s cross-border incursion, merely noting it was “deeply concerned” about the violence. The spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, stumbled in trying to explain to a foreign journalist that Russia’s response had not, in fact, been “soft”. The Syrian Kurds, who have ties to Moscow going back to Soviet times, have surely taken note.
All this has led analysts to begin to speculate that the beginnings of some kind of understanding over Syria may be coming into focus. Professor Joshua Landis, a keen Syria observer, was cited by a Kurdish news source:
“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that he will not accept normal relations with Damascus so long as Assad is at the helm. All the same, it is clear that Erdogan and his new Prime Minister are looking for ways to transform his relations with Iran and Russia in order to place greater pressure on the Kurds and stop their advance along Syria’s border with Turkey,” Landis told Rudaw English.
“We don’t yet know how much Erdogan will give Russia and Iran on the Syria question, in order to achieve greater pressure on the Kurds. But many are betting that Erdogan’s back peddling on the Syria question has not come to an end,” Landis added.
And, indeed, Turkish officials have in recent days made great efforts to publicize their openness for working more closely with the Russians. One unnamed official said Ankara would be amenable to hosting Russian jets at Incirlik airbase, the same facility that hosts the United States’ nuclear deterrent in Turkey. Ankara also announced the the Russian Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valeriy Gerasimov, would arrive for consultations on Friday (a report that the Russians denied).
Next up to watch: Kerry is set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva tomorrow. Expectations have been set low, with the best possible predicted outcome being an announcement of some kind of ceasefire for Aleppo. But maybe, with Turkey signaling flexibility on Assad, tomorrow will see movement on other fronts, like the resumption of the peace process.