The official reason for Turkey’s invasion of Syria last week has already dissipated. Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army have seized the border town of Jarablus, the Islamic State has surrendered with little fight, and the Kurdish militias have submitted to the American threat and have withdrawn from the city of Manbij near Jarablus. All told, one could argue that the incursion’s objectives have been achieved.
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But the Turks apparently don’t think so, which is why they’re continuing to battle the Syrian Democratic Forces, the militia set up by the United States to aid the Kurds, and against the Kurds in general.
Turkey isn’t giving a deadline for the end of the campaign, and it seems that its forces and the Free Syrian Army plan to establish a buffer zone between the Kurdish enclave and Turkey, something Turkey has been seeking for months. With American support its forces are also continuing to attack south of Jarablus toward Al-Bab, and from there west to Azaz, as well as east of the Euphrates to the city of Kobani, which is controlled by the Kurds.
The original Turkish plan sought to establish a strip around 100 kilometers (62 miles) long and 20 to 30 kilometers wide, to build refugee camps where Ankara would transfer most of the 3 million refugees now in Turkey. And mainly, this effort would halt the Kurds’ attempts to establish an independent Kurdish district.
Turkey’s policy ostensibly jibes with that of the United States, Russia and Iran, which have declared their desire to preserve a united Syria and not divide it into a federation of autonomous districts. This conforms with the aims of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But the Kurdish forces don’t see eye to eye with the Turkish-American policy. As Kurdish spokesmen have put it: “Turkey will sink in the Syrian swamp the way the United States sank in the Iraqi one.”
Maybe they’re right. The first Turkish soldier has been killed in the incursion, and two Turkish tanks have been hit by Kurdish forces. There have also been battles between Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army in and around Jarablus.
Still, the Kurds in Iraq, who helped the Syrian Kurds take the city of Kobani, don’t plan to intervene for now. Interesting is that Turkey at first agreed to the passage of Kurdish rebel forces to the Manbij area with an American guarantee that these forces would withdraw once they captured the city. This is what indeed happened, but now the military council of Manbij and Jarablus has made clear that it will not cooperate with the Turkish forces and will even fight them.
Meanwhile, the Turkmen who live in the region, some of whom have fled to Latakia on the coast, are demanding that the Turks continue the military operation to break the Kurdish rebels’ control in the region. They say the Kurds and the Islamic State can’t guarantee their safety because they are considered Turkish dependents.
A long violent struggle between the Kurdish militias and Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces could undermine the Western coalition’s ability to fight the Islamic State in Raqqa, considered the group’s capital. Such a conflict would also draw in the Arab tribes in the region and fear Kurdish seizures of their property.
These tribes are divided between Assad supporters and opponents, between those who helped put down the Kurdish rebellion in 2004 and those who were arrested, jailed and tortured by Hafez Assad before his death in 2000. These tribes have armed fighters, and if they agree to battle the Islamic State, they can supply some 12,000 troops.
If the conquest of Jarablus and the battle against the Syrian Kurds threaten to morph into a permanent front separate from the war on the Islamic State, this makes even clearer the degree to which the war on ISIS missed the target in its early stages.
The Islamic State, which is being defeated by modest forces and is withdrawing to avoid air and ground attacks, has been showing the limits of its power. So we see the strategic errors made by the West, Russia and even Iran when in 2014 they didn’t launch a major offensive against those guys on the pickup trucks capturing large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The fear at the time was of turning Syria into a battleground pitting the United States against Russia and threatening the completion of the nuclear deal with Iran. But this fear was apparently unfounded. Moscow, Washington and Tehran have found themselves in the Syrian arena anyway and are actually working to advance their mutual interests.
In fact, even if Bashar Assad remains in power, that’s no longer an insurmountable obstacle. The Islamic State, contrary to the conventional wisdom, isn’t an ineradicable idea but an organization fighting for its life.
Unclear is what the next stage in the Turkish campaign will be. In the end Ankara will want to withdraw its forces but without leaving a vacuum or keeping the Kurds in control of the area.