BY: MATTHEW DOTZLER
While the conflict in Syria has been proclaimed to be over with the defeat of the Islamic State, longstanding animosities are coming to a head in the region. The conflict between Turkey and the Kurds is exploding once again and the United States is caught in the middle. The US, which has been a natural ally for the Kurds in Syria, will now face the ire of Turkey, its NATO ally. With tensions at the Turkish border brewing, the conflict in the Middle East, and more importantly Syria, will likely take on a new form if the United States does not tread carefully.
Lighting the Powder Keg
Following the apparent defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Northern Syria, the US announced that it would support the establishment of a Syrian Border Force (SBF). The SBF will draw its forces from local Kurdish and Arab militias including from the Kurdish People’s protection Units (YPG). The border forces are tasked with patrolling the 510 mile border shared by Syria and Turkey in an attempt to close potential supply lines of troops and goods that could allow a resurgence of ISIL in the region. Turkey, however, sees this new force as a threat to its national security with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accusing the US of creating an “Army of Terror” along Turkey’s southern border. Erdoğan deems the YPG a terrorist group given their affiliation with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an organization with a long and bloody history of terrorism against the Turkish state. With neither side willing to accept the SBF or dismantle the coalition, Turkey moved against the Kurdish positions in Northern Syria in late January.
The Battles for Afrin and Manbij
On January 20, 2018, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, in defiance of the United States, marking the beginning of the battle for Afrin. Before launching a ground assault against the city and the Kurdish forces entrenched there, Turkish forces carried out an air campaign in the city driving many of Afrin’s residents to seek shelter in nearby caves. Even though there are currently no US troops in Afrin, Turkey is engaging US backed forces in a bloody battle for the territory.
While Afrin has proved costly for both the Turkish and Kurdish fighters, a more dangerous situation is unfolding at Manbij. The two opposing sides are caught in a tense standoff as an estimated 2,000 American troops occupy the area rejecting Turkish demands for their departure. So far, US forces have continued their operations in and around Manbij, but with the added effect of a large American flag flying at each outpost and vehicle they occupy. Still, the Pro-Turkish soldiers have their guns trained on the city leaving the potential for US personnel to be caught in the crossfire should fighting break out. President Erdoğan added to the tensions when he remarked that his forces would move to support their allies in Manjib and that those standing in their way would be “buried”. It remains to be seen what will happen, but the world is at an unprecedented moment as two NATO allies stand poised to clash.
Damned if we do, Damned if we don’t
The United States finds itself in a position to make a bad decision no matter what. The Kurds have proved instrumental in driving ISIL out of northern Syria. They have been a reliable ally to local US forces, but it is undeniable that they have ties to extremist and fringe groups. It does not help either that Kurdish autonomy is being challenged by the Iranian, Iraqi, and the Syrian governments. Turkey on the other hand, is a member of NATO and a strategic ally both in acting as the gatekeeper for Europe and in projecting Western influence into the Middle East. Increasingly though, Erdoğan has spent the past year attacking allies such as Germany and the European Union, while moving closer to cooperating with Russia.
Time is running out and the US must make a decision in this fight. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie has stated that US troops “will either stay or they will go” but it does not seem the Pentagon has made up its mind yet. The situation hasn’t been helped by Turkish actions either. The presence of US troops might be enough to keep the conflict at bay for a little while, but with Erdoğan stoking Turkish nationalism, Manbij is likely to turn contentious. The decision between allies is not an easy one, neither is it without consequence.
The United States should convene NATO member states to discuss Turkey’s behavior as well as the threat it poses for both the organization’s image and conflict between member states. Additionally, the US might should reconsider its backing of a Kurdish SBF in favor of local Syrians. It is clear that both the Turks and the Kurds are at a breaking point with one another. Continuing the conflict may be inevitable, but these are the last two options that the US has at its disposal aside from outwardly choosing a side.
The United States is caught in the middle of a dispute that has spanned decades. Neither the Turks nor the Kurds will willingly retreat on their position, prolonging the conflict in Syria and quite possibly drawing more actors in. Should the US decide to withdraw in any way, Turkey will be emboldened to make a strong showing against the Kurds. Whether the US chooses to back the Kurds, Turkey, or remain neutral, the situation in Manbij is poised to turn deadly.
Matthew Dotzler is finishing his Masters in Public Policy at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Administration at the George Washington University. He focuses primarily on US foreign and security policy issues relating to Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East.
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