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Turks are fighting in Syria to secure their share after the war

Huda al-Husseini

Published: Updated:

US military commanders are highly concerned about the Turkish offensive on the Kurdish canton of Afrin in Syria. US and European military observers are also wary of Turkish President Erdogan carrying out his threat of sending troops east of Afrin to Manbij.

On Monday, Bloomberg reported that talks between US and Turkish leaders and generals did not reach any agreement over preventing direct confrontation between the US and Turkish armies in northern Syria.

“We will defy the terrorists without taking into consideration who supports the,” Erdogan said. Therefore, a US-Turkish confrontation cannot be discounted unless one of the sides decides to step back.

The US, Turkey standoff

On his way to Paris last week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “We have asked Turkey to limit its operations ... to see if we can work together to create the security zone that it may need.” The attack on Afrin has opened a new front in the Syrian theatre, a turning point that may affect relations between the US and Turkey. Relations between the two have already been strained for a long time because of Washington’s support for Kurdish militias in the war against ISIS.

This was followed by the US plan to raise a “border force” of 30,000 strong Kurdish and Arab fighters inside Syria. Turkey called the plan a “dangerous threat” and dubbed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units as terrorist. Days later, Tillerson stated that the US troops would stay for an indefinite time in Syria, as part of a long-term strategy to topple the Syrian president and for defeating the ISIS.

Russia willingly ceded its control of Syrian airspace to Turkey; perhaps Putin wants two NATO allies (US and Turkey) to confront each other

Huda al-Husseini

It was then that Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch with its aerial and ground assaults to seize Afrin. The offensive has raised questions about the future of the fight against ISIS in Syria, as well as whether Washington and Ankara can trust each other as allies.

Since 2014, Turkey has criticized the US for arming and training the People’s Protection Units, whereas US’ main concern has been to defeat ISIS with non- US forces. For Turks, the US decision to raise a 30,000 strong force for manning the borders came as a major provocation. Erdogan viewed the move as a US ploy to build a terrorist “army” along the Turkish border and he threatened to take action in defence of ‘national security’. Within days, he launched the attack on Afrin with Turkish troops and the US-backed Free Syrian Army forces. Turkey also succeeded in making American-trained militias fight each other.

The Manbij face-off

The Pentagon has made it clear that it is continues to train forces to fight ISIS and focuses on internal security only. In addition, there is controversy over what transpired between Erdogan and President Donald Trump over a phone call. According to the White House spokesman, Trump asked Turkey to stop the military escalation and avoid civilian casualties. In response, Turkey asked Trump to put an end to the US arming of Kurds. Thereafter, Erdogan even then threatened to send Turkish troops to Manbij, which lies to the west of the Euphrates River.

Manbij is currently under the control of local Arab forces and self-defense forces. US Special Forces are positioned outside the city and patrolling the area. If Erdogan directs his offensive to Manbij, he would risk putting Turkey in direct military confrontation against its fellow NATO ally, the US.

General Joseph Fotel, commander of US forces in the Middle East, told CNN on Sunday that America was not considering withdrawing troops from Manbij, even though Erdogan had demanded that it be done “immediately”. US officials have said that so far there is no crisis between the two countries and that diplomacy still remains an option. In one way or the other Turkey must be trying to secure the non-Kurdish parts of eastern Syria. Its real intention behind the offensive may be to secure its interests and share in Syria when the war ends.

A Turkish source told me that all these developments have come at a time when Erdogan is preparing for Turkish presidential election in 2019. If elected, he will remain in power to implement his long cherished vision for the year 2023, which marks the centennial of the Turkish Republic founded by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. If Erdogan succeeds in the elections, it will make him the new father of modern Turkey. Meanwhile, Erdogan is trying to manage the long-standing security risks posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in Turkey, which remains extant in spite of Erdogan’s vows to eliminate them.

Buland Ali Reda, director of the Turkey Project at the Strategic and International Studies Center in Washington says that Erdogan has been playing with the feelings of the Turkish population by exploiting their fears of terrorism.

The Russian role

But where is the Russian role in these developments. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin is actively involved in these matters, with his country playing a key role in Operation Olive Branch. Russia has willingly given up its control of the Syrian airspace to Turkey in order to allow it to launch the offensive. It could have denied giving Turkey control of the Syrian airspace, but perhaps Putin wants two NATO allies confront each other, exchange fire and sustain casualties. Since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the Russian Federation has been looking forward to the dismemberment of the NATO alliance.

Erdogan speaks a lot and his words often cause controversy and confusion. However, his positions are never permanent. He recently visited the Vatican and meet Pope Francis, although he had accused that the Gulen movement — which Erdogan claims masterminded a failed coup attempt against him — was a “Vatican project”.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, White House internal security adviser Tom Bosert told reporters that he was “very skeptical” that Turks would go to Manbij and enter into a direct confrontation with US forces. Some observers described Erdogan’s threat as typical “Turkish arrogance”. In short, Erdogan wants to prove a political point; he needs to be present in some part of Syria for a variety of political and geostrategic reasons, but he will not endanger the American forces.

Danger of escalation

However, the Turkish speaker said: “The real danger here is that things can get out of control. Even if the Kurds were defeated in Afrin, they might be able to respond from elsewhere in Syria, which would open the door to more Turkish operations.”
Erdogan is unlikely to give up on his military operations against Afrin soon. It’s limited operations would cause little damage to US-Turkish relations, as long as the offensive does not move towards Manbij.

A few days ago, Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt tweeted: “Everyone knows that the main issue for Turkey is the Kurdish issue.but why are Arabs — specifically the Syrian opposition — fighting the Kurds instead of the regime. It is an Arab historical issue with the Kurds. Have we forgotten Saladin”.

Of course, Erdogan will not be the new Saladin, he is self-centered. His ambitions will be undermined. The Kurds are not a people ready to accept extinction. In this melee of nations, there would be many losers and no winner at all!

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Huda al-Husseini is a columnist who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.