Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Shaky Alliance

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 30, 2016 --  

Turkey's invasion of Syria has little to do with the Islamic State and everything to do with its war against the Kurds.

The columns of Turkish tanks that crossed into the Syrian border town of Jarabalus last week were supposedly sent against the Islamic State . The Islamists slunk out of town without a fight, handing control of the city to a Turkish government long accused of sympathizing, if not engaging in a tacit alliance with the Islamist movement. Turkey quickly added some local decorations to its invasion, sending some militias to follow its tanks into the city in pickup trucks.1 Those militias were likely Syrian Turkmen Brigades, a Turkish-funded militia of their minority ethnic cousins across the border.

Once in control of the city, the Turks didn't keep going into Islamic State territory. Instead, they turned south to attack Kurdish militias allied with the United States.2 These "People's Protection Units", or YPG using the Kurdish-language acronym, have served as America's de-facto ground force against the Islamic state since its bombing campaign began two years ago. Ever since American air power liberated them from the siege of Kobani in 2015, the lightly armed ground forces have seized a huge swath of northern Syrian territory from the Islamic State all the way from the Iraqi border to the Euphrates River over two hundred miles west. This has effectively given Syria's Kurds their own mini state much like Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey's actions makes it clear that their intervention is all about attacking the Kurds, with the Islamic State providing little more than a convenient pretext. The Russians used the Islamic State as a similar pretext for its intervention in Syria, with its real goal of propping up the Assad regime against a Western-backed opposition.

Turkey sees Kurdish control of northern Syria as a major problem because it has its own Kurdish separatist movement. The Turkish military has fought a long and bloody war with Turkey's PKK, which is closely allied with the Syrian YPG. Turkey's invasion of Syria's is designed to stop the westward advance of Syrian Kurdish forces, and prevent them from linking up another pocket of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria's northwest. The Euphrates river has become Turkey's line in the sand, and it has long demanded that Kurds stay to the east. Earlier this month, the YPG crossed the river and seized the ethnically mixed town of Manbij from the Islamic State.2 As promised, the Turks have now crossed the border attack Kurdish positions west of the Euphrates.3,4

Sadly, the Turkish operation against the Kurds comes with the backing of the United States. It is no coincidence that the Turkish invasion happened right when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was on a state visit to Turkey. At a joint press conference with Turkey's authoritarian president President Recep Erdogan, Biden said Kurdish units must withdraw from their positions west of the Euphrates River or risk losing American support.5 This rebuke of a newly solid American ally in Syrian Kurdistan in favor of a longstanding but shaky one in Turkey is clearly an attempt to mend strained US-Turkish relations.

Since a failed military coup attempt against Erdogan last month, the authoritarian president has lashed out against the United States which is a refuge for exiled Turkish leader Fethullah G├╝len, a former ally who Erdogan accuses of being behind the coup. Erdogan has gone further to suggest that America was also behind the coup, an accusation that has fueled anti-American public opinion.6 For nearly a week after the failed coup, Turkey cut power to America's Incerlik Air Base in southern Turkey, forcing it to rely on power from backup generators.7 Since then, Turkey has mended fences with Russia by apologizing for shooting down a plane last year, sparking fears that America's mercurial NATO ally might be shifting to the Russian orbit.

Such fears are overblown. Turkey's disagreements with America are nothing compared to its disagreements with Russia. Russia is intervening in the Syrian war to back the Assad regime, while Turkey is seeking its overthrow. Turkey has limited trade ties with Russia and very strong ones with its fellow NATO members in the European Union.

Turkish attacks on America's Kurdish allies supposedly have taken the Obama administration by surprise. On Sunday, a Pentagon spokesman demanded they stop fighting, saying the clashes are "unacceptable and they are a source of deep concern."8 It's unclear whether this statement is a public relations gambit meant to cover a stab in the back of the Syrian Kurds by the Obama administration. Either the administration was complicit in the planned Turkish strike on the Syrian Kurds, or it was stupid to think it wouldn't happen. Back in 2003, Turkey also betrayed its American NATO ally over the Kurds. Back then, American ships sending equipment for the invasion of Iraq had to turn around because Turkey refused to let them land. Then, like now, Turkey was afraid of the Kurds getting too much power as a consequence of the war.

If Erdogan continues his slide into dictatorship by dismantling of Turkey's institutions under cover of fighting the failed coup plotters, America must seriously consider whether it is wise to salvage their alliance with Turkey at all. Rather than conspire with Turkey against the Syrian Kurds to maintain an increasingly unpredictable Turkey's membership in NATO, America would be wise to reconsider whether the nation should be pushed to leave.

Related Web Columns:

Neither Loyalty, Nor Morality
The Coming Partition of Turkey
, April 15, 2003


1. BBC, IS conflict: Turkey-Backed Syrian Rebels Take Jarablus, August 24 2016

2. Rudy, Turkey Shells North Manbij, YPG Reports Possible Chemical Weapons, August 25, 2016

3. Chicago Tribune, Turkish-Backed Rebels Seize Villages in Syria; 35 Killed in Airstrikes, August 28, 2016

4. Ibid.

5. New York Times, With Operation in Syria, Erdogan Shows His New Power Over Turkey's Military, August 25, 2016

6. New York Times, Turks Can Agree on One Thing: U.S. Was Behind Failed Coup, August 2, 2016

7. Washington Post, Power Turned Back on at Incirlik Air Base, Nearly a Week After Attempted Turkish Coup, July 22, 2016

8. Washington Post, Clashes Intensify Between U.S.-Backed Groups in Northern Syria, August 28 2016