Opinion

Trump Made a Fatal Error. Turkey Is Incapable of Taking on ISIS, Even if Erdogan Wanted To

Ankara’s forces - riven by infighting, jihadist proxies and post-coup purges - will always prioritize fighting anti-ISIS Kurdish forces, and not Islamic State itself. America must stay in Syria until the anti-ISIS job is done

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a symposium on local authorities under the new presidential government system, at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on January 9, 2019.
AFP

Earlier this week John Bolton, chief foreign policy advisor to President Donald Trump, insisted that any withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would be contingent on a Turkish guarantee that Kurdish YPG forces would not be attacked. 

This inevitably angered Turkey’s firebrand President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who called the YPG, Washington’s main ally against ISIS, one and same as the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group according to both Ankara and Washington. 

National Security Advisor John Bolton who is on a mission to allay U.S. allies' concerns about Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and to gain Turkish promises not to attack the Kurds. Dec. 13, 2018
Cliff Owen,AP

This highlights one of the main problems of President Trump’s decision to pull-out from Syria. Contrary to what Turkey’s president may write in the New York Times, Turkey is not a suitable ally to finish off ISIS in Syria. 

Although Turkey is a member of NATO and part of the international coalition against ISIS, Ankara prioritizes fighting the YPG despite it being the most effective indigenous force against ISIS. And unlike ISIS, the YPG poses no threat to the U.S. or the West. 

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Last year, Turkey together with its proxy, the Free Syrian Army, launched a large-scale invasion of the YPG-held Afrin enclave in the north of Syria. Concerns voiced by the U.S. and other anti-ISIS coalition members that the operation will disrupt the fight against ISIS, fell on deaf ears in Ankara. 

During Turkey’s other intervention in Syria, the 2016-17 Operation Euphrates Shield, it took Turkish-backed forces over seven months to capture approximately 750 square miles, owing not only to tough battles, but also infighting and deadly internal squabbles. During the operation, Turkish special forces together with the Free Syrian Army did battle ISIS; however, Ankara’s real objective was to prevent the YPG from acquiring more territory. 

Meanwhile, some of the factions that are part of that Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army are hardcore jihadists, such as Aurar al-Sham - which seeks to establish a sharia state in Syria - and are ideologically not far from ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In the past, Turkey has even been accused of recruiting former ISIS fighters into the Turkish backed Free Syrian Army.

What is more, these Turkish-backed forces have found it difficult to maintain law and order in the Afrin region. Since it took over the territory in March 2018, there has been an ongoing guerrilla campaign spearheaded by the shadowy Afrin Falcons and Wrath of Olives Operations Room groups. The violence includes bombings and assassinations, most notably the August 2018 videotaped assassination of Abu Muhammad Al-Shmali, a commander of the al-Rahman Legion, affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. 

Syrian fighter from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, practice in a mock battle at a camp in the northern Idlib province. August 14, 2018
AFP

Meanwhile, Ankara plans to settle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees it currently hosts in the Syrian territories it captures. It did so in Afrin while indigenous Kurds have been displaced. So far there is little to indicate that this policy of resettlement was carried out with due process and diligence to ensure property ownership and the validity of claims for repatriation. Instead it resembles an intention to tamper with the delicate demographic balance of northern Syria - which risks yet further displacement, resentment and despair. 

It is also unclear whether Turkish forces are up to the job of fighting ISIS. In recent years Turkey’s military has taken hit after hit. Several years ago, there were prosecutions and convictions (now overturned) over alleged "deep state" plots within the military against the government. More recently, the armed forces have seen their ranks purged by the tens of thousands since the July 2016 coup attempt, blamed on followers of the Turkish preacher and Pennsylvania resident Fetullah Gulen. 

And this purge is not over yet. As recently as 14 December Turkish prosecutors ordered the arrest of 219 military personnel for their part in the attempted coup. Last November arrest warrants were issued for 82 suspected Gulen members within the Turkish airforce. 

Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad, northeast Syria. May 4, 2015
אי־פי

This leaves the Turkish airforce in a tight position, especially seeing that the success of the U.S.-Kurdish partnership against ISIS consisted of Kurdish forces on the ground backed by round-the-clock U.S. air support, something that Turkey will find impossible to replicate for its own Syrian proxies. 

Indeed, earlier this week it was reported that Turkey is seeking extensive U.S. support including airstrikes, logistics and transport in order to take over the fight against ISIS. Turkey’s demands are so extensive that it hardly makes a U.S. withdrawal worthwhile, because if Ankara's demands are met it would mean that the U.S. would in effect be increasing rather than reducing its involvement in Syria. 

The White House is discovering that with few reliable regional partners against ISIS, the best course of action is to do what is responsible. That means not withdrawing from Syria now at all, and staying at least until the job is done. 

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of the recently published The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1