The Real Target of Turkey's Syrian Operation Is the Kurds, Not ISIS

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A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, Karkamis, Turkey, August 23, 2016.
A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, Karkamis, Turkey, August 23, 2016.Credit: IHA via AP

“We will cleanse the area of all the terrorists,” declared Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on the eve of  the Turkish invasion of Syrian territory near the city of Jarablus. But the Turkish definition of terrorists does not relates solely to Islamic State operatives or Al-Qaida; it also includes, perhaps primarily, the Kurdish rebels in Syrian territory that are considered a threat to Turkey.

Herein lies the paradox of the Turkish military operation. Ostensibly it is a reprisal operation for the mortar fire from Syrian territory early this week and the suicide attack that killed 54 people at a wedding in Gaziantep, only a few dozen kilometers from the battle site. But the Islamic State had committed large attacks before without drawing a Turkish invasion of Syria. The main reason for the incursion was to launch a military plan that had already been drawn up to prevent the Kurds from creating territorial contiguity for themselves.

Jarablus is a relatively small city, but its strategic importance lies in its location between two districts controlled by Syrian Kurds that have an enclave controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) between them. Until now, that enclave has prevented the two Kurdish districts from merging, a move that would provide the geographic infrastructure for establishing a continuous Syrian Kurdish district that could become an independent enclave, like the Kurdish region in Iraq.

That is why for years Turkey ignored – and, according to American reports, even assisted – the logistical traffic of Islamic State fighters and equipment between the little town of Karkemish, in Turkish territory, and Jarablus on the Syria side. Until the Turkish attack that began on Wednesday, Jarablus was the only direct crossing point between the Islamic State enclave and Turkey; this campaign may close that route.

The question is whether Turkey plans to leave a permanent military presence in Syria to prevent the Kurdish rebels from seizing control of the ISIS territory or whether it can succeed in enlisting enough non-Kurdish rebels, particularly from the Free Syrian Army, to act on its behalf.

The Turkish decision was not based solely on the ISIS mortar fire but primarily on developments in the field and the intervention of the great powers. The Kurdish conquest of the city of Manbij, south of Jarablus, and the Kurds’ plan to also capture Al-Bab, south of Manbij, made it clear to Turkey that it was liable to find itself facing a new reality on its border that would be difficult to change if it didn’t act immediately. The cooperation of the United States and Russia with the Kurdish rebels made Turkey realize that it was losing control over what was happening in the region close to its border.

Although Turkey has signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia, Russian aid to the Kurds has not stopped. Russia, which saw the Kurds as a way to aggravate Turkey during the months of crisis between the two countries, believes the Kurds will not oppose keeping the regime of President Bashar Assad in place.

Actually, the military cooperation between Russia, the United States and Turkey created a dilemma for the Turks, who had to decide where their most important interests lie. Is it more important to maintain the ISIS enclave, which split the territory held by the Kurds, or to cooperate in the battle against it?

For now, there is only one solution to this dilemma; to deploy Turkish forces in the field and help the Free Syrian Army seize control of the enclave, in the hope that these forces won’t then cooperate with the Kurdish rebels, who are considered the most effective fighters in the war against ISIS.

The problem is that the Turkish invasion and the involvement of the Free Syrian Army may cause an internal battle between the invading forces and the Kurdish militias and divert the focus of the battles from the war against ISIS to a struggle for territorial gain.

The Turkish invasion interferes with the plans of Russia and the United States, which have declared their desire to preserve Syria as a united entity, but in practice have not categorically rejected the idea of establishing an independent Kurdish zone that they will take under their wing. On the other hand, Russia and the United States cannot stop the Turkish invasion, which has acquired legitimacy because it’s being portrayed as a battle against ISIS.

At the same time, the Turkish campaign publicly demolishes the strategy of non-intervention on the ground that the great powers have been upholding until now. It’s true that a few hundred American fighters and trainers are operating in the field alongside the rebels, Russian ground troops are involved in the fighting and, of course, Iranian forces have been fighting in the Syrian arena for years. But as a declared policy, the powers have stressed that they do not plan to deploy ground troops. The Turkish move is liable to change that approach, particularly since plans to conquer the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria from ISIS are advancing in the background.

Turkey recently came to the realization that its immunity to ISIS attacks on its territory has faded and that the period in which it cooperated with the organization didn’t bring the hoped-for results. It seems that Turkey is also rethinking its strategy and may no longer be so insistent about blocking Assad’s continued rule at any price.

Last week, for the first time, Yildirim said that, “Assad is one of the players in the Syrian arena,” and that he could be allowed to continue his rule temporarily. This approach is based on the desire to keep Syria united in the face of demands to create a federated state in which the Kurds would have an officially recognized independent district.

Despite Assad’s sharp condemnation of the Turkish invasion, he too wants to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish district, and would prefer Turkey as a possible partner over the Kurdish or other rebel groups.

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