Backed Into A Corner, The US May Have To Choose Between Its Anti-ISIS Partner And Its NATO Ally

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Omar Haj Kadour / AFP / Getty Photographs

Turkish-backed Syrian insurgent fighters close to the Syrian village of Qilah within the Afrin area of Syria on Wednesday.

Whereas Turkey’s navy assault on US-backed Kurdish forces within the Syrian area of Afrin has dominated the headlines, it is town of Manbij to the east that’s drawing the eye of the Pentagon and its NATO allies.

That is the place US troops are working alongside Kurdish allies, and the place the US may confront a actuality US planners hope by no means involves move, a confrontation with its Turkish NATO ally.

On Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threatened that Manbij can be his navy’s subsequent goal, elevating the prospect of a navy standoff between NATO’s two largest armies.

Thus far the Trump administration’s response to Turkey’s navy operation in Afrin, 60 miles from Manbij, has been muted. However when US troops had been deployed to Manbij in March final 12 months, a Pentagon spokesman referred to as it a “seen reminder for anyone seeking to begin a battle.”

It is unclear what comes subsequent if that instigator is a NATO ally.

“We’ll clear our area from this hassle fully,” Erdogan mentioned on Wednesday, vowing to “foil video games alongside our borders ranging from Manbij…this operation will proceed till the final member of the phobia group is neutralized.”

In a name later within the day, Trump urged Erdogan to “train warning and to keep away from any actions which may danger battle between Turkish and American forces,” based on the White Home.

On Saturday, Turkey despatched troops, supported by greater than 70 plane, into Afrin, which has been managed by US-backed Kurdish fighters, referred to as the YPG, for years. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist risk, an offshoot of a gaggle that has fought a guerrilla marketing campaign towards the Turkish state for greater than three a long time. The US considers them the best navy associate within the battle towards ISIS, and has been arming the group over Turkey’s fierce objections since a minimum of final Might.

Turkish FM Cavusoglu says their navy offensive in Syria may escalate: “For now, Afrin is the goal. However in t… https://t.co/AqaO6cm8F3

Now the continued conflict of pursuits between the 2 NATO allies may turn out to be actual on the bottom. If Turkish forces assault Manbij, the US must resolve whether or not to show its again on its navy associate towards ISIS, or danger a confrontation with its ally.

Thus far, the Trump administration, which as about 2,000 troops in Syria, has primarily watched from the sidelines, taking part in a fragile stability between reassuring Turkey and pleading for de-escalation. Protection Secretary Jim Mattis this week walked that line, each making an attempt to mollify Turkey by acknowledging its “official safety issues,” whereas additionally asking it to “train restraint within the navy actions and the rhetoric and make sure that its operations are restricted in scope and period.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson additionally put it mildly, saying he was “involved in regards to the Turkish incident” and that the US does “totally respect Turkey’s official proper to guard its personal residents from terrorist parts.”

The muted response appears solely to have emboldened Erdogan, nonetheless. He vowed in a televised handle that “we’ll take no step again.” On the similar time, the mild US response has been seen as a betrayal by Syrian Kurds, who accuse the US of utilizing their assist to drive out ISIS and now simply wanting on as Turkey assaults them.

Earlier than their offensive started on Saturday, the Turkish navy gave the US advance discover that their forces had been going to strike the Kurds in Afrin, Mattis instructed reporters.

The battle highlights that the US has been in an untenable place for months, partnering with and arming a gaggle that Turkey considers terrorists, whereas on the similar time reassuring the Kurds of its full help.


Ozan Kose / AFP / Getty Photographs

Turkish tanks are parked close to the Syrian border at Hassa, in Hatay province on January 24, 2018, as a part of the operation ‘Olive Department’, launched a number of days in the past.

Senior Trump administration officers instructed reporters on Tuesday that Turkey was sending “conflicting indicators” and wasn’t being clear about its targets. It’s extra probably that the US simply doesn’t need to hear it – Ankara has said its intent is to clear the Syrian border enclaves of Kurdish fighters and making a roughly 18-mile-deep zone “protected zone” between Afrin and the Iraqi border, based on Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

Turkish troops, joined by allied Syrian rebels, reportedly captured a number of villages within the area together with Shankal, Qorne, Bali and Adah Manli, based on Turkey’s state-run Anadolu information company. However others, together with the London-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that the YPG had fought off Turkish troops from two of villages. As of Wednesday, it was not clear how a lot territory the Turkish navy had seized.

The Turkish authorities additionally claimed that its offensive, code-named “Operation Olive Department,” had killed a minimum of 260 YPG and ISIS fighters. Different studies gave a lot decrease casualty numbers.

The US has publicly rejected the assertion that ISIS fighters are within the space.

“We don’t see ISIS in that space,” State Division spokeswoman Heather Nauert mentioned on Tuesday. “This space that we’re speaking about, Afrin, was comparatively secure…and now we’re tremendously involved in regards to the state of affairs.”

Midway throughout the globe in Indonesia, Protection Secretary Jim Mattis echoed the identical speaking level.

“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a comparatively secure space of Syria,” he instructed reporters in Jakarta. “It distracts from worldwide efforts to make sure the defeat of ISIS.”

To keep away from antagonizing Turkey, US officers have been couching the escalating battle as a distraction from what they name the shared purpose of totally defeating ISIS in Syria.

“We’re ready to work with Turkey on official safety issues, however extended operation dangers giving life to ISIS as its on verge of defeat,” Brett McGurk, the US particular envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, who had simply returned from Syria, mentioned on Wednesday.

#Afrin state of affairs developed as we had been leaving. US now engaged intensively to induce restraint and de-escalation. We a… https://t.co/yL3Xwy0pwm

Turkey’s air and floor offensive has already displaced 1000’s. An estimated 5,000 individuals have fled the combating within the Afrin space, based on a UN report, with 1000’s extra unable to go away. There have additionally been studies of civilian casualties, with girls and kids caught in the course of the Turkish shelling.

The Trump administration, from the White Home to the Pentagon to the State Division, has made it clear that it could choose the combating in Afrin finish, however is just not but keen to stress its ally severely.

“As a lot as we’re involved about destabilizing actions in northwestern Syria, I need to make this clear as effectively, that…as an vital NATO ally, we totally perceive Turkey’s issues in regards to the PKK,” Nauert, the State Division spokeswoman, mentioned on Tuesday.


Pool / Getty Photographs

Trump and Erdogan on the White Home in Might.

There have additionally been crossed wires between Trump, who has beforehand instructed Erdogan the US would cease arming the YPG and appeared to sign the identical factor this week, and the Pentagon, which has mentioned it doesn’t intend to take action.

On his finish, Erdogan on Wednesday referred to as on Trump to cease the US from supporting the YPG with weapons. He defended the operation as a matter of nationwide safety for Turkey, saying it was aimed toward “purging terrorist parts” from Afrin, based on an announcement from the Turkish authorities.

Turkey’s transfer doesn’t come as a shock – it has threatened to take navy motion ever for the reason that US introduced it could arm the YPG in Might. The strain was exacerbated final week when the US introduced plans to remain indefinitely in Syria, in addition to create an armed pressure of 30,000 individuals, consisting primarily of Syrian Kurds, to keep up safety in areas seized from ISIS.

Vera Bergengruen is a Pentagon reporter for BuzzFeed Information and relies in Washington, DC.

Contact Vera Bergengruen at [email protected]

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