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.

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.”

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.