April 3, 2018 | Policy Brief

Erdogan Threatens to Expand War Against U.S. Partners in Syria

April 3, 2018 | Policy Brief

Erdogan Threatens to Expand War Against U.S. Partners in Syria

A bomb blast near the city of Manbij in northern Syria killed one American and one British soldier last week, not far from the front lines that separate Turkish forces from Syrian-Kurdish fighters and their U.S. partners in the anti-Islamic State coalition. The same day, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey has started preparations to eliminate Kurdish forces from three regions near the Syrian-Turkish border, which would entail a major expansion of the anti-Kurdish offensive, known as “Operation Olive Branch,” launched in January.

Erdogan’s announcement follows the success of Turkish forces in capturing the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Afrin, the initial objective of Operation Olive Branch. Even before securing all of Afrin, Erdogan vowed to extend military operations both to Manbij, where American forces are stationed, and to the Sinjar region of Iraq, which hosted fighters from the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent force aligned with the Syrian Kurds but designated by the U.S., EU, Turkey, and others as a terrorist organization.

Last month, Baghdad made clear its opposition to all Turkish military operations on Iraqi soil. Initially, the Turkish foreign minister claimed that Baghdad had approved a plan for a joint Iraqi-Turkish operation against PKK elements in Iraq. Then, on March 11, Turkish warplanes destroyed at least 18 PKK targets in northern Iraq, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported. In response, Iraq’s foreign ministry condemned the “deadly” Turkish airstrikes that it alleged to have killed civilians. Furthermore, an Iraqi official said Iraq does not need Ankara’s help in dealing with the PKK.

Despite this warning, Erdogan announced on March 25 that Turkey had begun military operations to target the PKK in Sinjar, even though local sources told Reuters that PKK militants had already withdrawn from the area. Erdogan’s statement prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to order the military to take full control of the country’s border to ensure there would be no Turkish incursion, although Abadi justified the move as an effort to prevent “foreign fighters” from using Iraqi territory to launch cross-border attacks against Turkey. Despite Abadi’s action, Erdogan warned Baghdad that Ankara would not “ask for permission” to extend its operations against the PKK on Iraqi soil.

Now, Erdogan has indicated he plans to follow through on his threat to expand the scope of his anti-Kurdish campaign in northern Syria. Specifically, Erdogan called for clearing the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the regions of Ayn al-Arab, Ras al-Ain, and Tal Abyad. He also rejected France’s offer to mediate with the YPG, which Paris believes has “no direct organizational links to the PKK.”

Since the Turkish campaign undercuts the coalition’s efforts to crush the Islamic State, the U.S. should make its opposition clear. That can be done through the resumption of talks designed to address Turkey’s valid concerns about the PKK without causing further instability in a volatile region. Despite its increasingly hostile foreign policy and descent into dictatorship, Turkey remains a member of the NATO alliance. While the U.S. should prioritize diplomacy, it should not tolerate an ally’s threat to the presence of U.S. troops in Syria.

Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @RomanySh.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Syria Turkey