By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On the eve of Turkey’s threatened invasion of eastern Syria, accelerated by US President Donald Trump’s October 6 decision to turn over the anti-ISIS campaign to Turkey and withdraw from border areas, there are many issues that come to mind, including quotes from key individuals. In no particular order, here they are.
Turkey has telegraphed exactly what it plans to do
Not expecting any pushback, having already told the UN General Assembly it plans to take over eastern Syria and settle it with mostly Arab refugees from other parts of Syria, Turkey knows there will be little opposition. Turkey’s media and officials say exactly what they will do. It says it will begin by bombarding points along the border, those not already cleared by the US “security mechanism” that got the SDF to remove obstacles to the invasion during September.
Bloomberg says “A small forward group of Turkish forces entered Syria early Wednesday at two points along the frontier, close to the Syrian towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.” Someone pointed out these areas are along the historic Berlin to Baghdad railway. Further: “The first targets will be the Syrian towns of Kobani, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, all held by the YPG and located along the former Berlin-Baghdad railway that for hundreds of miles forms the frontier with Turkey, according to the officials. The military aims to penetrate at least 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep into Syrian territory and secure the M-4 highway that runs parallel to the frontier all the way to Iraq in the east, they said. Erdogan was keen to act before winter set in and made it difficult for tanks to operate in muddy terrain.”
David Ignatius writes that “Targets are Tal Abyad and Ras al Ayn…..Ironically Tal Abyad was the main supply route for ISIS in 2014-15 through an open border from Turkey. Turkey refused repeated requests from US to shut border. That’s a big reason why US decided to partner with SDF, which took the town in the summer of 2015.”
The advance will be along areas that Turkey demanded joint patrols during the security mechanism. Ragip Soylu notes “More Turkish operational plans in Syria. First point of contact would be the Turkish/US security zone in Tal Abyad, Rasulayn [Ras al-Ayn]. Security pockets prioritised. Main aim is to cut Kobane – Hasakah road. Combined Joint Op Center, (CJOC) to be used for de-confliction with US.” Turkey has no interest in taking over the IDP camps or areas where ISIS detainees are. Instead it will operate along 120km of frontline from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ayn. “Airforce, drones/jets and howitzers will pound YPG targets. Then Turkish Special Forces and Syrian National Army will enter.”
Turkey-backed “Free Syrian Army” factions: Controversy and extremism
Videos of the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels groups (Syrian National army) that Turkey has brought up from other parts of Syria it controls or from bases in Turkey are known for their far-right characteristics. They wave swords at the camera, shout about killing “athiests,” and generally appear as intolerant and extremist, or at the very least incompetent cannon fodder. Turkey has used them before in Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Afrin in 2018. In Afrin they looted property. They are also accused of destroying the shrines of religious minorities.
Turkey, apparently concerned about this, will try to prevent looting, writes Elizabeth Tsurkov, in reference to Ankara’s plans. But the very fact Turkey has to work to prevent this shows the king of proxies, rebels and others it has pressed into service. Ankara is offering these groups a consolation prize: Fight the YPG and you’ll get land or areas to rule in eastern Syria. These are groups that supposedly signed on to fight Assad but since 2016 they have been redirected to fight Kurdish groups, a convenient way to get two of the last independent groups in Syria to fight each other, stoke tensions between communities and thus enable Turkey to dominate as they are played off against one another. One Turkish newspaper included the headline “Go tell the infidels, the Army of the prophet Muhammad is back!”
The language used by these groups, such as Jaysh al-Sharqiya, tends towards extreme intolerance, almost mirroring the language of ISIS, about attacking “infidels” or “kuffar.” Members of Sultan Murad also shout extreme far-right slogans. Nicholas Heras pointed out that media has not paid sufficient attention to these groups. The problem is that these groups are integral to Turkey’s multi-pronged approach, because Turkey is telling its own citizens and Syrian rebels that it is fighting in eastern Syria to help get Syrians to return to Syria, even to areas they aren’t from, part of a $27 billion program. It is unclear if these groups will ever group frustrated when they realize they are being used by Ankara. it is also unclear if the international community will ever demand oversight over Ankara’s alleged plan to build 200,000 houses in 140 towns in eastern Syria, confiscating the lands of locals to do it. Usually this would be illegal under international law of military occupation.
How Turkey planned this: Right in the open
Turkey helped fully form the Syrian National Army on October 4, just two days before the Trump-Erdogan call that put things in motion. Before that it had threatened in July to launch the invasion, getting the US to set up the security mechanism and coordination center in Turkey. The US got the SDF to destroy fortifications and allowed Turkey to enter areas in Syria as joint patrols. While CENTCOM supported the SDF’s commitment, Ankara worked with EUCOM.
In northern Syria on October 2 the US Special Operations of OIR noted “the security mechanism framework addresses security concerns in northeast Syria. We have been making solid progress with fortification reduction, joint patrols and joint overflights, while still focusing on defeating Daesh in the region.” EUCOM noted on October 5 “.S. and Turkish militaries are executing concrete steps as part of the security mechanism framework to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. The Department of Defense will be transparent as each phase of the security mechanism is implemented.”
But there was no evidence Turkey was working to ease tensions. Instead it said it would launch an invasion anyway. The US also said on September 18 that Turkey was working with it on the anti-ISIS campaign, even though Turkey was planning on attacking the SDF, the main partner of the US fighting ISIS. The US misled itself into the October 6 phone call mostly because there was little coordination between State, the Pentagon and White House, or even between other parts of the government such as James Jeffrey and Trump. The Kurdish groups in eastern Syria had been systematically excluded from the Geneva talks but they relied on the US anyway. yet they received more disappointing news in late September that Turkey had vetoed any participation by groups linked to the SDF in Geneva, despite them controlling one third of the country. Ankara already knew it would launch an offensive to displace these groups. As with the security mechanism, the US played along in sidelining their own partners, often without noticing it. Ryan Browne noted on October 9 “That appeasement failed and now because the SDF trusted the U.S. they are now more vulnerable to Turkey’s attack.”
Turkey has several narratives. One is articulated by Fahrettin Altun “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army, will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly. YPG militants have two options: They can defect or we will have stop them from disrupting our counter-ISIS efforts.” Soylu notes ” If YPG withdraws from the immediate area between Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, Turkish military will just move in with Syrian National Army. But If YPG has heavy presence, then howitzers and airforce first be used to destroy YPG posts, fortifications.”
On October 9 Erdogan’s senior advisor Ibrahim Kalin spoke to “US National Security Advisor O’Brien on the safe zone amid imminent Turkish incursion in Northern Syria. Kalin assures O’Brien that the aim of the operation is cleaning Turkey’s borders from terrorists and maintain the anti-ISIS mission.” He spoke about steps after the “safe zone” was created. He claims that “Turkey has no intention to occupy any part of Syria,” and says “We have no interest in changing the demographics in Syria…We have done more than any other country when it comes to fighting ISIS or Daesh.” He also says that “Turkey supports Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity. Has no interest in occupation or changing demographics. The PKK/YPG did that northeast Syria. Time to correct it.”
Yusuf Erim points out “An Adana style agreement is an inevitable end to the dilemma in Northeast Syria. However, we are 2-3 years away from such an agreement. Turkey will only negotiate a deal after Syria holds free and fair elections and a legitimate government is in power…Also any new agreement will be much deeper than 5km, probably 15 to 30 km, granting the Turks more monitoring rights than the previous deal.”
Turkish military on October 8: “The Turkish Armed Forces is the only Coalition and NATO army fighting the DAESH terrorist group hand-to-hand in the field in Operation Euphrates Shield.”
The role of Russia and Iran
Russia and Iran are key partners of Turkey in the Astana track of talks. Russia has sold Turkey the S-400 and Iran needs trade from Turkey. As such, although both support the Syrian regime and are critical of Turkey taking over northern Syria permanently, they must find a compromise. They want the US evicted.
Erdogan spoke to Putin on October 9 about the operation. Russian FM Lavrov had appeared to support SDF discussions with Damascus. “I asked the Kurds and Damascus to start direct talks in terms of solving the current issues including protecting the borders,” Lavrov said. Iranian President Rouhani spoke on the eve of the invasion as well. “We have openly said that the only solution to ensure safety and security in southern Turkey and northern Syria is the presence of the Syrian army,” state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying on Wednesday. Iran’s FM Javad Zarif had more choice words “US is an irrelevant occupier in Syria—futile to seek its permission or rely on it for security. Achieving peace & fighting terror in Syria will only succeed thru respect for its territorial integrity & its people. Adana provides framework for Turkey & Syria—Iran ready to help.” He also said “We are calling on our friendly and brotherly neighbor Turkey to act with more patience and restraint, and to revise its decision and chosen path.”
Russia has agreed to enable Turkey to use Syrian airspace in the past, such as before Afrin. The issue is more complex now because the US is still in eastern Syria. Russia must weigh what will happen in Idlib amid the offensive as well.
Iraq, Europe and other countries
Iraq increased its forces at the border on Wednesday, even though it is facing massive protests. There is a religious holiday as well in Iraq. The Kurdistan Region’s Masoud Barzani wrote “We are very concerned about the recent developments in Western Kurdistan. We are in contact with several channels and we will do our utmost to ensure that the people of Rojava are not subjected to any more disasters.”
Syria’s regime has consistently critiqued Turkey. On October 3 the FM said that Turkey’s plans amount to “ethnic cleansing.” The Arab League has also rejected Turkey’s invasion, in a statement on October 9. The Secretary General of Arab League warns against any Turkish military intervention in Syria, saying it is a breach of Syria’s sovereignty.
Israel is also concerned. Naftali Bennett, a politician and former minister, noted “At this time we, Israelis, pray for the Kurd People who are under a brutal Turkish attack. The lesson for Israel is simple: Israel will ALWAYS defend itself by itself. The Jewish State will never put its fate in the hands of others, including our great friend, the USA.”
Many European countries are concerned. Belgium’s Reynders: ‘Very worried by indications of an imminent Turkish invasion in northeast Syria. With my EU colleagues, I call on Turkey to refrain from unilateral military action that could undermine the fight against Daesh and threaten regional stability. Any solution must be political.” The UK’s Raab said “We do not support the proposed Turkish action… it will destabilize the region, and threaten efforts to defeat ISIS. We have made that position clear to the US.” Turkey’s ambassador to the UK however sought a “new way” for the Uk to deal with ISISS fighters in Syria if they come under Turkish control. In France, Macron said he is very worried about a Turkish invasion.
Tobias Ellwood in the UK parliament “US Troop withdrawal from N Syria undermines all the work done to bring stability to the region.”
Bipartisan condemnation of Turkey has been common in the US. Senator Lindsey Graham: “If Turkey moves into northern Syria, sanctions from hell – by Congress – will follow. Wide, deep, and devastating sanctions.” Ilhan Omar: “Trump’s move will not put an end to endless wars. What it will do is reward Russia, Iran, and ISIS. He’s not leading us toward peace. He’s showing the world that his political interests are more important than reliable leadership and keeping our commitments to our allies.” Elizabeth Warren: “I support bringing our troops home from Syria. But President Trump’s reckless and unplanned withdrawal undermines both our partners and our security. We need a strategy to end this conflict, not a president who can be swayed by one phone call.”
However, Rand Paul has supported Trump’s decision.
Grace Ming wrote “Pulling U.S. forces out of Syria undermines U.S. leadership and abandons our Kurdish allies.”
Former US officials
Anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, who resigned in December 2018 when Trump first decided to leave Syria, condemned the decision. “Mr. President: With all due respect, none of this is true. I’d recommend having meetings with your experts and policy team before making historic life-and-death decisions. Making such decisions after a one-off call from a foreign leader is malpractice.”
Susan Rice: “Trump’s decision to sell-out our Kurdish partners who were essential to fighting ISIS and leave them hanging is a metaphor for his entire failed foreign policy. If you’re with us, Trump will turn against you; and, if your against us (eg Putin, Kim) he will roll out the red carpet.”
Former CENTCOM commander Joseph Votel was also outraged “The SDF are a capable and trustworthy partner and did everything we asked them to do even if when it was not something that they necessarily wanted, beyond that they protected us every day, their dedication to the fight and to our partnership was always evident to me…”
General Martin Dempsey: “We can’t be reliable only when it’s convenient. Our reputation as individuals, organizations, or as a country matters. Good leaders honor their commitments without hesitation and with no excuses.”
The SDF and YPG
Nuri Mahmud: “Turkish President delivers advanced military technology obtained by the Turkish army from NATO to the ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, to attack northern Syria in order to destroy the international achievements there.”
SDF general Mazlum Kobani expresses disappointment in Trump ruining relationship despite previous support. He also notes that many civilians live along the border.
Mustafa Bali, SDF spokesman: “We are not expecting the US to protect NE #Syria. But people here are owed an explanation regarding security mechanism deal, destruction of fortifications and failure of US to fulfill their commitments…SDF urges all coalition partners and international organizations to immediately take action in order to avoid impending humanitarian crisis on Syrian-Turkish border.
Coordnation center of SDF calls for no fly zone.
The Pentagon and CJTF:OIR
Pentagon on October 8: “Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety. We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time.”
The Pentagon and many parts of the US government appeared out of the loop.
Trump’s subsequent statements
Oct 7: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over…the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!”
Oct 8: “So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States, in fact they make the structural steel frame for our F-35 Fighter Jet. They have also been good to deal with, helping me to save many lives at Idlib Province, and returning, in very……..We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters. Likewise our relationship with Turkey, a NATO and Trading partner, has been very good. Turkey already has a large Kurdish population and fully….understands that while we only had 50 soldiers remaining in that section of Syria, and they have been removed, any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency. We are helping the Kurds financially/weapons!”
Oct. 9: “Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years. USA should never have been in Middle East. Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!…The United States has spent EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS fighting and policing in the Middle East. Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side. GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE…..
ISIS appeared to use the change in policy to carry out attacks in Raqqa on the night of October 8. The attack was repulsed.
People on the ground
Many people are fearful across eastern Syria. One told Wladimir Van Wilgenburg how disappointed he was. “We were in Raqqa Manbij and many other cities together. He’s so disappointed in the US and president Trump. But he says if Turkey attacks the Kurds he will join the resistance and fight. Live or die. Victory or death.”
The US decision raises many questions. Here are some I thought of.
1. Will the US only leave the border area, staying in Deir Ezzor and demanding SDF continue to patrol that area.
2. Will SDF continue to patrol all its areas after Turkey invades.
3. Will US and international community demand SDF continue to run all the detainee facilities for ISIS, while also rubber-stamping Turkish operation.
4. The overall perception is that Turkey has a “right” to take over part of Syria, that security concerns give it a “right” to do so, as if it’s inevitable. What about international law?
5. When Turkey invades how will the SDF respond, will it claim that the YPG is fighting Turkey and that it isn’t?
6. When Turkey invades how will PKK react in Turkey, if they carry out attacks it will fuel Turkey’s narrative that “YPG/PYD is PKK”…if they don’t then Turkey gets to do Afrin again.
7. What happens in Qamishli, does the regime assert more control.
8. Does the US remaining in parts of southeast Syria remain to block Russia, Iran, Syria regime, even if SDF cuts a “deal” US says “no, you can’t cut a deal.”
9. Will the SDF be disbanded?
10. When Turkey invades will SDF do another Afrin where it decides to sacrifice pieces of eastern Syria with the hope it will keep other pieces.
11. What happens to the air power, does the US give Turkey airspace to bomb, but only Turkey, not Russia or regime? Who controls the air.
12. What happens to the rest of the Coalition, UK, France, etc?
13. Will Turkey try to take over border area with Sinjar?
14. Will Turkey use its Syria rebel fighters as “cannon fodder” or proxies?
15. What becomes of Manbij?
16. What happens with the Rojava Peshmerga?
17. What is Russia’s deal with Turkey, did it agree that in exchange for S-400, Turkey gets most of its “safe zone”.
18. Will the SDF/SDC sign a deal with the Syrian regime?