December 6, 2022 | Policy Brief

Biden Must Act to Prevent a Turkish Attack on US Partners in Northern Syria

December 6, 2022 | Policy Brief

Biden Must Act to Prevent a Turkish Attack on US Partners in Northern Syria

Following a barrage of air strikes against Kurdish targets in northern Syria, the Turkish government has vowed to follow up with a ground campaign against the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up the bulk of the U.S.-aligned Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). Such a move could not only destabilize the already troubled region but also result in SDF forces suspending their fight against the remnants of the Islamic State in order to repel the Turkish attack.

In the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack in Istanbul, which left six dead and over 80 injured on November 13, Ankara blamed the YPG, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey consider to be a terrorist organization. Ankara claims the alleged bomber, Alham Albashir, is a card-carrying member of the YPG. While maintaining close relations with the PKK, the YPG has been a staunch ally in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, and there have been no documented YPG attacks inside Turkey.

Although the PKK and YPG have strenuously denied any involvement in the Istanbul attack, Ankara swiftly moved to carry out bombing raids and drone strikes in northern Syria, resulting in numerous civilian casualties. Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has said that Ankara’s ground campaign could come “tomorrow, next week or anytime.” Blaming the YPG could increase nationalist support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his bid for a third term.

In the event of a ground campaign, YPG forces will have to divert their attention away from operations against ISIS, possibly providing an opportunity for the terrorist organization to regroup. The Turkish attack could also imperil the security of the Al-Sana prison camp, which holds thousands of ISIS prisoners.

Although Washington opposes any military action in Syria, Erdogan could bypass American objections by convincing President Bashar al-Assad to greenlight the operation. This assumes Turkey could gain approval from Moscow, the dominant state actor in Syria. In return, Ankara would likely agree to recognize the Assad regime, withdraw its forces from Syria, and tacitly agree that its initial campaign to undermine and topple the Assad regime has failed.

The commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, is concerned that Washington may not make a concerted effort to prevent a Turkish attack because of Turkey’s role in providing Ukrainian forces with military drones and facilitating grain shipments to Ukraine across the Black Sea. The White House also wants Turkey to ratify Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bids, which the alliance must approve unanimously. Tellingly, the United States has evacuated all civilian staff from Syria to Erbil in northern Iraq. The State Department has declined to offer any clarity as to what the U.S. position would be in the event of a Turkish invasion.

To deter any reckless action, President Joe Biden should personally inform Erdogan that a ground campaign targeting the SDF will not be tolerated. There is already an executive order authorizing sanctions against Turkey if it “undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.” Biden should make clear he is prepared to use it. Biden can also have U.S. service members continue to participate in joint patrols with the SDF, displaying U.S. flags and banners on vehicles. Additionally, the United States can make it absolutely clear to Turkey that F-16 sales, for which Turkey has long petitioned Washington, will be off the table in the event Ankara does not comply. While Turkey’s continued support of allied initiatives in the Ukrainian conflict is highly valued, that support should not be a license for aggression on other fronts.

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Sinan, the Turkey Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Syria Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy