Turkish Military in Iraq & Syria

An internally displaced Kurdish family in northern Iraq, 2016 (Maranie R. Staab)

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Published

January 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

More than a week of Turkish-backed air and artillery strikes and ground incursions into the Kurdish controlled Syrian region of Afrin have led to multiple credible reports of civilian harm.

Affected areas include not just the Afrin enclave but also civilian towns within Turkey – and Turkish-occupied towns in Syria – which have seen retaliatory attacks from Kurdish forces.

A new rolling assessment published by Airwars has so far tracked 24 claimed civilian casualty events within Afrin blamed on Turkey – and a further nine events attributed to Kurdish forces.

From the start of operations on January 20th to January 28th, at least 41 to 55 civilian deaths have been assessed by Airwars as likely caused by Turkish-backed forces, along with an estimated 10 to 15 civilian fatalities tied to Kurdish counterfire.

That civilian toll could increase dramatically if the fighting moves into more heavily populated areas where tens of thousands of civilians – many displaced from elsewhere – have taken shelter in Afrin and other Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. The Afrin district of Aleppo governorate is cut off from the bulk of the remaining Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria (known as Rojava by Syrian Kurds) by Turkish-backed opposition forces to the east. To the north and west lie Turkish border areas from which Turkish-backed forces have punched through into Afrin district in several areas.

The Turkish flag is shown raised at Burseya Mountain in Syria, within the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin, on January 28th 2018 (image via Turkish Armed Forces)

Civilians on the move

Activists and aid workers on the ground tell Airwars that most displacement from the recent fighting has so far been confined to the Afrin region, as civilians move from targeted villages to other areas, including the city of Afrin itself.

“The town itself has become a refuge for civilians from neighbouring border villages who fled their homes due to the Turkish offensive,” wrote the Kurdish Red Crescent in a January 26th Facebook post.

On January 26th, UNICEF reported that civilians “attempting to flee the area in search of safety have reportedly been prevented from leaving AFRIN.” Violence, the organization said, was “reported to be so intense that families are confined to the basements of their buildings.”

Seven days and #Turkish shelling continues on the villages of the city of #Afrin thousands of civilians are hiding in the shelters and the situation is very bad . pic.twitter.com/n1tWIHs2SL

— Shero Alo (@SheroAlo1) January 27, 2018

The Afrin region is already filled with vulnerable civilians, including 125,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) that the UN estimates are in Afrin district and nearby SDF-held areas of “northern rural Aleppo.”

After just two days of fighting, on January 22nd the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA reported the displacement of some 5,000 people “from the border communities of Bulbul, Shankal, Admanli, Balal Kuy and Ali Bakki to the central parts of Afrin District.”

See here for more on reported civilian casualty claims relating to Afrin

Ground operations have heavily utilized Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army units. Airstrikes have been uneven, and limited compared to artillery fire, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Turks are in some respects mimicking the recent American model in Syria – utilizing proxy ground forces, and backing them with heavier weapons from a distance.

“It seems the Turkish strategy is just to blow stuff up with a lot of artillery fire and pushing the FSA in,” said Cook. “What’s clear to me is the Turks are very nervous about throwing their own guys into this, and they want the FSA to be their cannon fodder.”

The US-led Coalition has employed a similar strategy to back the proxy Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in campaigns to take Syrian cities including Manbij and Raqqa. The SDF, however, is heavily dominated by member of a Kurdish separatist faction called the YPG. Justifying its attack on Afrin, Turkey in turn cites YPG ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a three decade insurgency inside Turkey, and is listed as a terrorist entity by both Ankara and Washington.

Turkey at odds with US

While the YPG is Ankara’s target, it remains unclear just how far Operation Olive Branch, as it’s been dubbed, will go. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the first move in a four-part operation will be to secure a 30-kilometer “safe zone” along Turkey’s border, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to move on Manbij, which is located to the east of where Turkish-backed opposition forces have operated along the border since 2016.

The US has at least 2,000 troops still in Syria, including a semi-permanent presence in the vicinity of Manbij. A move on that larger area by Turkey could prove explosive, pushing Washington to finally choose between loyalties to dueling Kurdish and Turkish allies. Turkey is a part both of NATO and a supporting cast member of the anti-ISIS Coalition. That US-led alliance in turn has relied heavily on Turkish bases to fly missions over Iraq and Syria – including those in direct support of the SDF.

US officials have warned Turkey against incurring a heavy toll in Afrin. On January 24th, the White House said President Trump had urged Erdogan on a phone call that day to “deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced person.”  The US has, however, stopped short of calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. It distracts from international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS, and this could be exploited by ISIS and al-Qaida,” US Defense Secretary Mattis said during a recent trip to Indonesia.

Deadly attacks

Even as regional and international powers have grappled with the implications of the Afrin assault, the civilian toll has climbed.

What appears to have been the deadliest incident since the incursion began took place on January 21st, when at least 10 civilians – mostly children – were credibly reported killed on a poultry farm in A’nabka by Turkish fire. The local outlet Afrin Now initially named seven victims – 6 children and an adult woman – and later provided Airwars with the names of three additional victims, who it said belonged to a displaced family.

A child is removed from the rubble following an alleged Turkish airstrike on A’nabka in the Afrin countryside (via Afrin Now)

On January 23rd, local outlets reported that between four and six more civilians were killed and and 16 wounded in an alleged Turkish attack on Jindires. Photographs posted on social media showed destruction in what appeared to be residential areas of the town. Additional graphic photographs uploaded to the website of the Manbij Military Council showed bodies being loaded into the back of a pickup truck. 

‘The effects of the destruction as a result of heavy Turkish shelling of civilian houses in the area of Jenderes in the countryside of Afrin.’ (via Afrin Now)

On January 26th, seven more civilians – reportedly belonging to a family displaced from Idlib –  were alleged killed by Turkish strikes on Ma’abatli village. The outlet Free Afrin identified five victims, including a 14 year old child. 

Boushkin Mohama Ali, director of Afrin Now, a local monitor in the Kurdish district, said that more than 40 civilians had been killed in Afrin district by January 27th. “The situation is getting worse every night,” he told Airwars in a Whatsapp exchange. “The shelling includes several areas, especially the villages of Jindires, Rajo and Bulbul – in the border area between Syria and Turkey.”

“There are more than 100 displaced families from the villages of Afrin who moved to the center of the city of Afrin and reside in schools and cellars, and many [more] displaced families reside in the center of the city of Afrin in the homes of their relatives,” said Ali.

Activists and monitors say casualties from Turkish strikes are so far largely being limited to more rural areas outside of Afrin city. Monitoring also suggest this is the case: only one civilian casualty incident recorded by Airwars researchers – a January 20th airstrike – was reportedly inside the city itself.

The #Turkish army targeted one of the mosques in Jondiers in the countryside of #Afrin . pic.twitter.com/g1YHSuqvlV

— Afrin Now (@afrinnow) January 27, 2018

#Turkish shelling today on the village of Blilko in the countryside of #Afrin .أثار القصف التركي اليوم على قرية بليلكو في ريف عفرين .#عفرين_الآن pic.twitter.com/gSaJSGW6Vx

— Afrin Now (@afrinnow) January 27, 2018

“The bombing so far has been in villages and towns around Afrin, but there have been few bombs in Afrin city,” Dr. Noori Sheikh Qanbar, head of the Kurdish Red Crescent, told Airwars. He said that the bombing in Jindires on January 23rd – southwest of Afrin city – had lasted for 24 hours, and claimed the lives of five people while leaving 27 wounded. Qanbar said that to January 26th, the Kurdish Red Crescent had so far documented 162 wounded civilians.

Turkish civilians under fire

Kurdish attacks have also reportedly claimed lives, both in Turkey and in Syria. On the night of January 19th, Airwars monitored reports that at least one civilian was killed in Al Bab by Kurdish shelling. The following day another civilian was killed by shelling in Kilis, across the border in Turkey. On January 22nd, Airwars monitored three separate incidents in the Turkish town of Qeirekhan. In one case, Shahin Elitash, an electric company employee, was killed while repairing power lines.

On January 24th, reports from FSA-held areas in Aleppo governorate indicated that several civilians were injured in a Kurdish strike that allegedly claimed the life of a Turkish-backed opposition fighter. Smart News agency said the rocket attack took place in Abla, south of al Bab. That same day, at least two additional civilians were killed and more than a dozen reportedly injured when rocket attacks hit a mosque and homes in Kilis.

See here for more on reported civilian casualty claims relating to Afrin

Information about operations and civilian casualties is, however, often widely contradictory. Falsely attributed photos and videos of conflict victims have made monitoring more difficult.

“There are many inflated news reports published by both parties [pro-Kurdish and pro-Turkish media],’ said Ali of Afrin Now.

The weak quality of some sourcing inside Kurdish-controlled Afrin – and in some cases, misleading or exaggerated reports – has made tracking civilian casualties more difficult. Social media accounts have for example circulated photographs of victims which Airwars researchers were able to tie to past events.

“Some monitors and media outlets are transparent as to whose side they’re on. Pro-Kurdish sites generally seem to report only on the civilians killed by Turkish airstrikes and artillery, while those on the Turkish side are mostly reporting on the civilians reportedly killed by YPG missiles,” said Airwars’ chief Syria researcher Kinda Haddad. “There are still some media outlets reporting on civilian casualties regardless of where they die  – but the fact that some monitors and media outlets appear to be taking sides is worrying.”

Military toll

Both sides in the Afrin battle are well armed and equipped, and are using battle hardened troops. However the use of heavy Turkish air and artillery power places the Kurds at a disadvantage.

On the night of the 25th-26th, Turkey said that 48 targets were “destroyed” in attacks that involved “27 warplanes.” Reports on the ground however suggest that strikes have been more limited at night, and that artillery has often featured more heavily than aircraft.

After a week of fighting, Turkey reported that three of its own soldiers had been killed along with 13 FSA fighters. It also claimed that more than 440 Kurdish forces had been ‘liquidated’ – numbers that are impossible to confirm.

Meanwhile, Kurdish sources reported that one tenth that number of YPG fighters – 43 so far – had been killed, while claiming that more than 300 Turkish soldiers had been slain.

There's a significant disparity between official Kurdish and Turkish reports: with each side claiming few of its own casualties, and many opposing troops killed https://t.co/HavJtLVIsm

— Airwars (@airwars) January 27, 2018

▲ A public funeral for military and civilian victims of Turkey's assault on Afrin, January 22nd 2018 (via Afrin Now)

Published

February 24, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After more than three months of fighting, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have captured central al-Bab from so-called Islamic State according to local reports.

Yet civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery and ground combat in and around the town reportedly stretched into the hundreds, according to the United Nations. Considering al-Bab’s small size, this high toll raises concerns about further Turkish-led actions in northern Syria – where the US has supported Kurdish forces that Turkey now says it will next target.

As the administration of US President Donald Trump weighs whether to revamp American mlitary policy in Syria, and possible lower thresholds for civilian casualties, the threat of prolonged and bloodier confrontations grows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAbSQkGlOEo

A Smart News video depicts Turkish-backed FSA rebels following their February 23rd capture of al-Bab

Following heavy criticism from NATO ally Turkey, since mid-January the US-led Coalition launched nearly 50 strikes in support of Turkish forces fighting to capture al-Bab. The raids represented a distinct third front of Coalition activity after operations at Raqqa and Mosul – and added a volatile element to an already convoluted situation in the town.

By entering the fray, the Coalition also became the third international force bombing al-Bab, in addition to Turkey and Russia. On the ground, Turkish forces and allied opposition units battled ISIL.

Following news of ISIL’s withdrawal from al-Bab on February 23rd, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara’s Euphrates Shield operation would now continue towards Kurdish-held Manbij. That city lies to the east of Al-Bab and was captured in the summer of 2016 by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by deadly Coalition air support. The presence of the predominantly Kurdish SDF in Manbij has been a point of tension for Turkey ever since. A January assessment conducted by the Washington Institute predicted that Turkey may apply the same ruthless techniques used in al-Bab at Manbij, “leaving Washington with the prospect of major civilian carnage.”

Turkish State TV enters Al-Bab following the FSA's seizure of the town pic.twitter.com/sBU1wtVMk0

— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) February 23, 2017

North Syria increasingly chaotic

In late December, after the US initially balked at supporting Turkey’s unilateral move on al-Bab – preferring attention be paid to Raqqa instead – Ankara began cooperating with Russia to coordinate strikes around al-Bab. Whatever the level of cooperation, this was an unprecedented move for a NATO member, and increased pressure on the US to provide its own superior airpower.

The Obama administration had tried to maintain a delicate balance – and forestall an extended confrontation – between its treaty ally Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that fight under the SDF banner. Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant group waging a renewed campaign inside Turkey.

Abd al Jawwad Yassin (left), Mohammad the son of Abd al Sattar and a child, the daughter of Abd al Sattar (top), and Abd al Sattar Yassin. Reported killed killed in Beza’a city, east of al Bab. (picture courtesy of Al Bab al Hadath)

Both Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist organization. The US, however has embedded special operation forces with the SDF, and has relied on the group to capture northern Syrian cities including Manbij. The Coalition has also backed SDF with hundreds of airstrikes in recent months around ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa. In this climate, US CENTCOM told told Airwars as late as January 10th that there had been “no changes to existing US policy regarding support to the Turkish military in al-Bab,” and that American forces were not “conducting US airstrikes in or near Al-Bab.”

That stance changed just one week later, when the Coalition said that it had carried out its first strikes in the area on January 17th – just three days before US President Barack Obama left office.  Since then, the Coalition launched at least 47 raids, according to daily strike reports. Those bombings supported an existing mix of Turkish air and artillery strikes, as well as regular Russian raids and a collage of ground forces – making the tracking and attributing of civilian casualties difficult. While it appears that Turkish airstrikes were primarily focused on the western part of the city – where its forces made slow progress – Coalition and Russian strikes were harder to pinpoint, and neither belligerent provides exact locations for where their weapons are released.

Airwars has monitored dozens of reported civilian casualty incidents in al-Bab since November 2016. Tellingly, reports often conflated Turkish and Coalition actions well before the US-led alliance was officially involved. Through January, the Coalition insisted that Ankara’s offensive was unilateral.

On December 9th, to take one example, reports indicated that at least 13 civilians were killed in al-Bab. Local accounts cited both the Coalition and Turkey, though most blamed Ankara. One local report described how all-Bab “came under aerial bombardment and heavy artillery… [by the] Turkish army,” leaving more than 20 dead from a single family. Three days later, on December 12th, 12 civilians including 6 children were reported killed, and local accounts blamed both Turkey and the Coalition.

Given Turkey’s official membership in the Coalition, it is not always clear if local reports mean to distinguish between the two entities. Since the official start of Coalition strikes in Janaury, that task has become even harder. Extending Euphrates Shield will likely create further contested reporting.

Airwars asked the Coalition how it split targets with Turkey. A spokesperson provided the following statement:

“The Coalition uses a variety of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance to provide accurate information to intelligence centers, strike cells, pilots, and commanders. These information sources provide the Coalition with situational awareness and allow for research and target development on the enemy’s functional use of locations and structures.”

Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, says his organisation does attempt to separate Turkish and Coalition attacks based on certain clues.

“We do distinguish between them, and we do not consider them as one side – as if Turkey was a member of the coalition,” Abdul Ghany told Airwars. “It is hard,” he added, “but the international coalition strikes are more precise and more powerful.”

UN: more than 300 civilians slain in battle for al-Bab

The UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) has also been tracking events in al-Bab, and provided Airwars with data from December 2016 through February 17th 2017, just before the town fell. Matthias Behnke, head of OHCHR’s Syria Team said the team “received reports that about 300 civilians have been killed so far as a result of the offensive to retake al-Bab, primarily due to airstrikes but also from improvised explosive devises (IEDs).” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the toll slightly higher, reporting that 353 civilians, including 87 children and 55 women had been killed between November 13th 2016 and February 20th, 2017. It blamed those deaths on Turkish airstrikes and artillery.

Alarmingly, Behnke said that their monitoring suggested that “at least 100 civilians have been killed in and around al-Bab town since February 1st.” A strike on February 8th, he noted, “allegedly killed at least 27 civilians and injured at least 30 others, many of them from the same family.”

According to the daily Coalition strike report for February 8th, “Near Al Bab, three strikes engaged two ISIL tactical units; destroyed two mortar systems, a VBIED, vehicle, and a tunnel entrance.” However, local reports monitored by Airwars blamed Turkey. Al Bab 24, for instance, blamed “Turkish air and artillery shelling” and provided an extensive list of civilians from several families. “The number of victims under the rubble is large and it hasn’t been possible to pull them all out due to heavy shelling,” the report added.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpWkKy49_1c

ISIL proaganda video February 12th 2017 showing heavy damage to al Bab

On February 13th – when the Coalition reported no strikes – at least 15 civilians were allegedly killed in al-Bab. The Al Bab Coordination Committee provided the names of 17 people, including 5 women, which it said had perished. Syrian outlet Shaam News cited ISIL news reports which referred to “Turkish aircraft and aircraft of the international coalition” – reflecting the confusion over who exactly is bombing al-Bab. For locals caught up in the violence, there is often little difference. Worsening the plight of civilians, says the UN, are reports that militants have shot at residents of the city to prevent them from fleeing. “UN Human Rights Office received a number of reports of ISIL fighters shooting civilians trying to leave towards areas controlled by armed opposition groups,” said Behnke. But the UN has also received reports that Turkish-backed rebels have “shot civilians who are mistaken for ISIL elements, and a few reports of Government forces positioned south of al-Bab firing on civilians who are trying to leave towards al Raqqa.”

Given the complicated politics of the al-Bab operation and its high civilian toll from Turkish attacks, it is also unclear the extent to which non-US Coalition members took part in bombings there.  The Coalition would not provide a breakdown of what countries have bombed al-Bab, but the UK told Airwars it carried out one attack during 2017, on January 18th. The UK Ministry of Defense declined to comment on whether it planned to launch any further military actions in the vicinity of al-Bab. While the Coalition’s task is more straightforward in Iraq where it cooperates with the government, the complexities of Syria may make it more difficult for Coalition members to see eye to eye.

The latest civilian casualty incident in al-Bab monitored by the UN took place on February 20th; Behnke said it initially appeared that “tens” of people had been killed. Airwars researchers tracked reports of civilian casualties on this day, when both the Coalition and Turkey reported strikes. The Turkish military said it had bombed or shelled more than 250 targets in al-Bab between February 19th and 21st. The Coalition meanwhile reported that “Near Al Bab, three strikes engaged two ISIS tactical units, destroyed four ISIS-held buildings, and damaged an ISIS-held building.”

Disproportionate toll

If 300 civilians or more were killed in al-Bab since December, it would represent a major toll proportionate to Raqqa and Mosul, where hundreds of thousands more civilians continue to reside, and where the Coalition is now releasing thousands of bombs each month. Al-Bab is much smaller than both cities, and is defended by at most several hundred ISIL fighters – possibly fewer than the number of civilians killed. The Coalition was but one actor in al-Bab – but it was unclear to what extent they are communication with the Turks with an eye to protecting civilians.

Reports in the days before al-Bab’s fall indicate the Trump administration may be willing to lessen support to the SDF, favoring long-term stability with Turkey. According to Aaron Stein, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, that decision to appease the Turks could prolong the campaign to take Raqqa. Indeed, Turkey has made clear it intends to move not towards Raqqa, but Manbij.

The flash points, however, would be al-Bab, Manbij, and Tabqah. In this scenario,” Stein wrote in a recent assessment of US-Turkish interests in northern Syria. “Washington would have to assume the risk of Kurdish-Turkish escalation in favor of the broader effort to appease Ankara while also ousting the Islamic State from Raqqa with a Turkish-backed force.”

Choosing Turkey over the better-poised SDF could stretch the fight for Raqqa into 2018 – ample time for hundreds more airstrikes. 

▲ Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Turkish Minister of National Defense Fikri Isik at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 15, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

Published

January 18, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Among the dozen nations that are officially a part of the kinetic US-led Coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, few are more important – and none potentially more challenging for the Coalition itself – than Turkey.

A NATO member, Turkey shares a border with both Iraq and Syria, and has deployed troops in each. Yet in neither case are the Turkish soldiers there part of Inherent Resolve operations. The Coalition depends heavily for its Syria actions on Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. Yet in recent weeks, Turkey has gone so far as to call in Russian airstrikes during its fight for the key ISIL-occupied Syrian city of Al-Bab – a startling development that Ankara blames on Washington’s refusal to help.

As Airwars observed in its December 2016 audit of the anti-ISIL alliance, “Turkey remains the most ambivalent member of the US-led Coalition – with almost all of its military actions viewed as unilateral by its purported allies.” While Turkey has launched numerous air raids into both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers at the time observed that no more than ten had actually been in direct support of Coalition objectives.

Disparate enemies

Underlying all of Turkey’s cross-border actions is a tension between two disparate enemies. Ankara is determined to suppress a domestic Kurdish insurgency, while also reining back ascendant Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq. At the same time, Turkey is now directly confronting the so-called Islamic State in the Levant. When Turkey launched an invasion of northern Syria in August 2016, its troops pushed ISIL from a buffer zone along the border. But Turkey also targeted local Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), fresh from their own Coalition-backed victories against the Islamic State.

A female Kurdish soldier sits atop an armored vehicle, allegedly captured from Turkish-backed rebels in rural Aleppo. (Girê Sipî Post, posted October 13, 2016)

The Ankara government considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since the 1980s – often employing terror tactics. In 2013 the Turkish government reached a ceasefire with the rebels – though that deal eroded as the Syrian war progressed. Ankara had to watch as Kurdish irregulars gained prominence and territory in northern Syria, which some said might form part of a future Kurdish state. In 2015 the ceasefire completely collapsed.

In addition to fighting the PKK – along with conducting alleged human rights violations in Kurdish areas of Turkey – the Turkish government has bombed PKK sites in Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdish regional government there is not itself allied to the PKK). Complicating matters further, Ankara has insinuated itself into the fight to retake Mosul, basing its troops out of an old military camp near the city since 2015. At least 800 Turkish troops remain at Bashiqa, against the wishes of the government in Baghdad.

Harking back to the Ottoman period when that area of northern Iraq was part of the former empire, Turkey’s President Erdogan insists that it is still a part of his own nation’s zone of influence. Turkish forces have shelled Mosul, reportedly killing civilians, while the US-led Coalition has suggested its presence is not sanctioned. “It is the position of the US and the coalition that anyone that is fighting terrorism in Iraq should be doing so in coordination with the government of Iraq,” Coalition spokesperson Colonel John Dorrian told Airwars in November. 

The Turkish line – that “Iraqi sovereignty is very important to us” but that its own (unwelcome) military presence is “a result of need” as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in January 2017 – is contradictory. Yet it is a line the Turks have stood by, as they seek to assert themselves ahead of ISIL’s expected fall in northern Iraq. The Turkish government wants to check Iranian-backed militias in the area, and, it claims, to protect local Turkmen communities with whom leaders in Ankara say they enjoy a kinship and ancestral bonds. From its occupied base at Bashiqa, Turkey has also trained both friendly Kurdish Peshmerga troops, and elements of local Sunni tribal militias who are opposed to ISIL.

“You called us to Bashiqa, and now you are telling us to leave. Excuse me, but I have kin there, I have Turkmen brothers there, Turkish brothers who ask us to come and help,” Erdogan said in October 2016. “Excuse me, but I won’t leave.”

Bogged down at Al-Bab

Advancing swiftly through northern Syria in the early days of its 2016 invasion,Turkey and its local Arab allies in Operation Euphrates Shield now risk becoming bogged down in a bitter struggle for Al-Bab –  a key city where ISIL appears willing to fight to the death. In the wake of heavy troop losses over the past month, Turkey has loudly protested a lack of Coalition air support for its operation to capture the city – an assertion backed by the Coalition’s own strike reports, which show no raids in the vicinity.

The US prefers that the Coalition keeps its Syria focus on ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa, where dozens of strikes have taken place in recent weeks. The Coalition has also poured intense firepower into Mosul, stretching resources between the two fronts. There has also been irritation as the Turks push hard against Washington’s favoured (and mostly Kurdish) SDF allies. Turkey’s defense minister in turn has threatened to cut off US access to Incirlik airbase.

#Aleppo: #ISIS destroyed Turkish army Leopard 2A4 & M60T tanks with ATGM strikes at #Al_Bab. Last photo: abandoned Otokar Cobra. pic.twitter.com/53OWYjwy0n

— WorldOnAlert (@worldonalert) December 24, 2016

Dozens of Turkish troops have been reported killed in the bloody fight for Al-Bab

“US-Turkish relations are not good; the US primarily is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds and Turkish troops and the Turkish-allied rebels from fighting each other, rather than the Islamic State,” says Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  “Turkish strikes in Syria and Iraq,” he notes, “are not coordinated with the Coalition beforehand.”

As the Al-Bab campaign continued, Turkey reached a ceasefire deal along with Iran and Russia in late December involving the Syrian government and certain rebel groups. Sensing an opening, Russia began cooperating with Turkey at Al-Bab. The tentative set-up came just a year after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border – and just days after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara.

Turkish defense officials have confirmed an arrangement with Russia. One military source told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that “We have got the cooperation that we couldn’t get with the [U.S.-led anti-ISIL] coalition with Russia.”

Though remarkable for a member of NATO – particularly one so at odds with Moscow since the start of the Syrian war – the recent deal with Russia could still be viewed as being in line with Turkish self-interest: defeating ISIL, while also preventing a de facto Kurdish state from emerging on the fringes of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. 

A US F-16 takes off from Incirlilk airbase in eastern Turkey. Ankara has threatened to throw the Coalition out if it continues to support Kurdish ‘terrorist’ forces in Syria.

Failed coup

Much has also changed since the failed and bloody coup attempt which sought to overthrow President Erdogan in mid 2016. Since then, Turkish nationalism has been on the rise – and old certainties are under pressure.

“Turkey is officially part of the Coalition, but really since the botched coup attempt of last July, and then the normalization with Russia, there has been so much anti-Americanism that’s been widespread in Turkey,” says Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“There is hope in Ankara that things will improve – and they can’t be much worse than today with the Obama administration. Not only that [the administration] failed in Syria. but there is widespread belief that the US had consciously moved to undermine Turkey’s position both domestically and in Syria by aligning itself with the Kurds, by arming the [YPG], and by extension the PKK.”

Ulgen estimates that Turkey could take Al-Bab within the next two months. The question then, is what comes next? “If Turkey successfully captures Al-Bab, will that be the end of the Turkish offensive in Syria? Or, as some claim, will Turkish forces then be directed to Manbij?”

Manbij, to the west of the Euphrates, was captured by the Kurds after a bloody, Coalition-backed fight in 2016. The town is now controlled by the SDF, and a Turkish assault may represent a point of no return for the US, which has thus far withstood the dissonance of nominally allying with the Turks and relying on their air bases, while actively and deeply supporting the YPG in Syria – the very force that the Coalition plans to support in taking ISIL’s proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

Major Michael Meyer, a spokesperson for US CENTCOM, told Airwars on January 10th that despite reports that the US was increasing support for Turkish military operations, “there have been no changes to existing US policy regarding support to the Turkish military in Al-Bab and we are not conducting US airstrikes in or near Al-Bab.”

However, a week later the Coalition confirmed on January 17th that the first strikes in support of Turkish forces had in fact taken place.There have been four of these strikes so far,” spokesman Colonel Dorrian told reporters. “And again, we do expect to continue doing these types of strikes in the days ahead.”

What if any deal the US-led Coalition has made with Turkey on air support remains unclear. Any decision of how to proceed with the Turkish government, in any event, will be handed off the President Donald Trump.

“The United States is kind of checked out – everyone is waiting for Trump, and I think that the major players like the Turks have in this sense essentially written off the Obama administration,” Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Airwars. “Putin and his people seemingly want to flip the Turks, and you have a certain amount of receptivity to that in Ankara.”

The risk of that occurring may have been furthered after CENTCOM’s official twitter account posted a statement issued by the SDF, writing underneath that “SDF confirms that it has no affiliation or ties to PKK.” Ibrahim Kalin, press secretary to President Erdogan, tweeted back, “Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses? Do you believe anyone will buy this? The US must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group.”

Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses? Do you believe anyone will buy this? The US must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group

— Ibrahim Kalin (@ikalin1) January 12, 2017

Turkey’s presidential spokesman blasts CENTCOM for its support of ‘terrorists’

Civilians at risk

Any Turkish attack on Manbij would also be ominous for civilians living there. Hundreds already likely died in the US-backed campaign to oust Islamic State from the city and its environs in 2016.  A fresh Turkish assault would inevitably lead to more casualties. The Syrian Observatory estimates that at least 280 civilians – including 100 women and children – have already been killed by Turkey and its allies since they invaded northern Syria five months ago.

On December 9th – to take a recent example – local reports indicated that at least 13 civilians died in an airstrike on Al-Bab. Citing an ISIL media affiliate, Al Jazeera said two families were among the dead and blamed multiple “Turkish airstrikes.” The Syrian Observatory also blamed the Turkish military, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights blamed the Coalition. While Airwars has classed the incident as “contested,” the Coalition did not report strikes in the area on that date – and it appears most likely that Turkey was to blame on this occasion.

“The picture is often not clear, and you often don’t know with strikes – you have some sources saying it’s Turkey, some saying it’s Russia, some saying it’s the Syrian regime,” says Kinda Haddad, chief Syria researcher at Airwars, who has tracked local reports on Aleppo governorate for two years. “That said, there was clearly a very obvious spike in allegations of civilian casualties from Turkish strikes in the second half of last year. As with the Russians and the Syrian government, they deny the civilian casualties.”

Yet without US air support, the current Turkish attempt to take Al-Bab and possibly Manbij could be even bloodier for non-combatants. As a recent Washington Institute study assessed, “Turkey will eventually take Al-Bab with or without U.S. help, likely by shelling the city and otherwise causing heavy civilian casualties.”

“Erdogan might then apply the same technique to Manbij if the SDF has not withdrawn by then, leaving Washington with the prospect of major civilian carnage, direct Turkish-Kurdish military confrontation, and further interference by the Russians, who would likely insert themselves as arbiters between Ankara and the Kurds,” the assessment concluded.

Airwars reached out to both the Turkish mission to the UN and its embassy in Washington for comment on this article. As of publication, neither had responded.

With the forthcoming inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th, US policy remains very much in flux. The recent Obama approach – going after ISIL, while dodging tough decisions about whether Kurdish ground proxies or NATO ally Turkey are more important to US interests –  may not sustain. The potential for new, explosive violence and needless civilian casualties in both Iraq and Syria remains a serious threat.