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Turkey's looming invasion of Syria tests US-Kurdish ties

US ties to its Kurdish allies become less of a priority as Washington focuses on the war in Ukraine
A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter aims a machine gun during a joint military exercise with forces of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group in al-Malikiya, in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, on 7 September 2022 (AFP)

Turkey’s threatened incursion into northern Syria is testing US efforts to balance between an important counterterrorism partner in the Middle East and a pivotal geopolitical ally in the war in Ukraine.

At the heart of the tussle between Ankara and Washington is the United States’ support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-majority militia Washington has partnered with to fight the Islamic State (IS) group.

Ankara views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a decades-long war for independence against Turkey. The US considers the group, known as the PKK, a terrorist organisation, but refuses to cut ties with the SDF, which Washington sees as the most effective fighting force against IS.

'The US needs Turkish buy-in on other issues'

- Andrew Tabler, former Syria director National Security Council

Turkey launched its first invasion of Syria in 2016, with the aim of depriving Kurdish fighters of a base along its border. Two more military forays followed in 2018 and 2019, giving Turkey and its Arab allied militias control over large swaths of Syrian territory.

Turkey has been threatening a new ground offensive for months, but its artillery and air campaign in the region accelerated after a bombing in Istanbul killed six people and wounded dozens more in November. Turkey blamed the attack on the PKK and its associated groups. Both the PKK and SDF denied involvement.

The US has tried to prevent escalations between the two during previous flareups, but analysts and former US officials are less optimistic about Washington’s mediation efforts this time.

“The larger issue is that the US has bigger fish to fry in Europe,” Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Syria director on the White House National Security Council, told Middle East Eye.

“The US needs Turkish buy-in on other issues, so the response to this potential incursion has been pretty muted.”

SDF
Fighters with the Turkish-backed "Syrian National Army" along the frontlines of areas under control by the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on 29 November 2022 (AFP)

Turkey has emerged as a swing player in the Ukraine war. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the few Nato leaders to still maintain communication with Vladimir Putin. Russian and American spy chiefs have met on Turkish soil, while Ankara has helped broker a UN-backed deal to unblock Black Sea grain.

“You cannot extricate what’s going on in northern Syria from the wider political climate,” Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security programme at the Center for New American Security and a former Department of Defence official, told MEE.

While Erdogan has billed himself as a mediator, critics see an untrustworthy partner leveraging Turkey’s position inside Nato to extract concessions on foreign policy goals that run counter to western interests.

In September, Erdogan made a veiled threat to invade neighbouring Greece, as Ankara is locked in a series of maritime disputes with Athens. Turkey is also blocking the Nato ascension bids of Sweden and Finland over what it says is their support for Kurdish militant groups.

Turkey Grain deal
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres shake hands in western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on 18 August 2022 (AFP)

On Syria, Lord said: “There is no question that Ankara has longstanding security concerns regarding PKK activities, but what Turkey is doing now fundamentally undermines our [US] capability to counter IS.”

The US has already been caught in the crossfire.

Last week, a Turkish drone strike on a base in Hasakah, Syria, came within 300 metres of American troops. Without naming its Nato ally, the Pentagon said the strike “directly threatened” US forces.

“The continued conflict, especially a ground invasion, would severely jeopardise the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against ISIS and would destabilise the region,” a Pentagon spokesperson said on Tuesday. 

“The SDF are using the only card they have to persuade the Americans to do everything in their power to stop the Turkish incursion and protect them"

- Natasha Hall, CSIS

But the looming Turkish incursion is also testing Washington’s relationship with a longtime counterterrorism partner at a time when international attention has moved away from Syria.

“The counter-IS campaign is not the kind of mobilising force in public opinion that Ukraine is today,” Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Century Institute based in Beirut, told MEE.

The SDF has gone public, calling for more support from its ally. Mazloum Abdi, the group’s chief, has repeatedly demanded a “stronger” US message to stop a Turkish assault.

The group has said it is halting operations against IS to refocus on fending off a Turkish attack. On Tuesday, the Pentagon said it had reduced patrols in northern Syria because of SDF cutbacks.

But the SDF’s leverage with the US is limited compared to Ankara’s.

“The SDF are using the only card they have to persuade the Americans to do everything in their power to stop the Turkish incursion and protect them,” Natasha Hall, senior fellow with the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told MEE.

Hall said the SDF has been “on alert” since the Trump administration withdrew troops from northern Syria and that mistrust likely grew after the Biden administration’s Afghanistan pullout.

“They (the SDF) have gotten guarantees, but given the mass public relations campaign [they] have been on, it’s clear that they know that there are different levels of support and protection. It doesn’t bode well when the Pentagon says that Turkey has the right to defend its southern border.”

Syrian-Kurdish demonstrators
Syrian-Kurdish demonstrators protest Turkey's threats against their region, in the northeastern city of Qamishli, on 27 November 2022 (AFP)

Tabler, the former White House official, said the SDF is working to show it remains an “indispensable partner” to the US in combating IS, even as it scales back operations.

“The SDF relationship is not very high up on the priority list for the US right now. But that still begs the question: Who keeps IS in check? There are two options: Turkey and the SDF,” he said.

“Turkey wants a security belt along its border, but it does not want to go all the way down the Euphrates and do counter-terrorism operations,” Tabler added.

'The US is not going to go to bat for the SDF against the Turks in the way the SDF lobbies for'

- Sam Heller, Century Institute

Heller, from the Century Institute, said that previous Turkish military actions have been negotiated through the Astana format, with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has used previous flareups to cement its position as a powerbroker in Syria, fixing deals that have seen Turkey and the Assad government gain territory at the expense of the Kurds. Analysts say the Kremlin's influence has not waned despite being bogged down in Ukraine. 

“Right now it’s Russia that has more influence to dissuade Turkey on whether an incursion goes forward [rather] than the US," Heller said. 

Erdogan said last week that Turkey will target the areas of northwest Syria including Kobane (known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic), Manbij and Tal Rifaat. The latter two are outside the US’s area of military operations, a key difference compared to 2019 when US troops withdrew from northeast Syria in the face of Turkey’s ground offensive.

As for the SDF’s pleas to Washington, analysts say the Kurdish militia is likely to be disappointed.

“The US is not going to go to bat for the SDF against the Turks in the way the SDF lobbies for. It’s just not plausible,” Heller said. 

“Turkey has taken big bites out of SDF territory before, and the group's ties with the US have continued.”

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