On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of an impending military operation in Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria, and began amassing troops along Turkey’s southern border. Such a move would represent a major escalation between Turkey and America’s Kurdish partners in northern Syria, and directly undermine ongoing U.S. efforts to eradicate the Islamic State (IS). Accordingly, the U.S. immediately cautioned Turkey against “unilateral” action.
Turkey has battled a Kurdish insurgency since the 1980s and therefore perceives any Kurdish self-rule along its borders as a top national security threat. Accordingly, Turkey launched a pair of ground offensives in 2016 and 2018 to prevent Kurdish-ruled cantons in northern Syria from merging into a single consolidated entity just across Turkey’s southern border. Both offensives targeted Kurdish-held territory west of the Euphrates River.
Ankara has since set its eyes on the remaining Kurdish-controlled border towns to the east of the Euphrates, including Kobani, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ain, and Qamishli. Since they lie to the east of the Euphrates, these towns are part of the U.S.-protected zone in Syria. Indeed, in response to recent Turkish cross-border shelling of Tel Abyad, the U.S. set up military observation posts to deter Turkish incursions.
In defiance of Washington, Turkish military plans and recent deployments indicate an impending cross-border offensive into the Arab-majority town of Tel Abyad. If successful, such a move would allow Turkish-backed rebel forces to effectively besiege the Kurdish-majority Kobani, isolating the town from predominantly Kurdish regions further east, such as Qamishli. Turkey-backed rebels have also indicated a possible offensive against the town of Manbij in the west.
Turkish interventions carry potential to disrupt the U.S.-led campaign against IS in Syria, given that Washington’s Kurdish partners have in the past withdrawn from the front lines when Kurdish-majority areas come under Turkish attack. Most recently, in late October, when Turkey began shelling Tel Abyad and Kobani, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) suspended its offensive against IS in the south to reinforce positions in the north. This halt and redeployment led directly to jihadists recapturing previously liberated territory along the Syria-Iraq border. The SDF has resumed its offensive and began to fight its way back into lost territory, but, the SDF told Reuters yesterday that the Kurdish militia would “be forced to come protect the borders” in the face of a Turkish attack.
More broadly, these Turkish incursions would threaten America’s relationship with vital Kurdish partners who make up the SDF’s core. Syrian Kurds want primarily to secure Kurdish autonomy in the country’s northeast. Should Turkey seize this portion of Syria, the Kurds will likely presume American consent. Already skeptical of Washington’s commitment to the Kurds due to the NATO alliance binding Washington and Ankara, Syrian Kurds may start questioning the value of their partnership with the U.S. and look for other backers in the region.
Since its intervention in Syria, the U.S. has invested significantly in establishing and supporting an effective partner on the ground. The SDF has been key to accomplishing U.S. objectives against IS and is best positioned to help secure America’s long-term interests in Syria. The U.S. response to Turkish saber rattling should reflect the value of this partnership and make clear that Washington will protect its SDF partners from Turkish attacks east of the Euphrates.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Andrew Gabel is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Merve and Andrew on Twitter at @MerveTahiroglu and @Andrew_B_Gabel.