by Andrew Bernard · August 7, 2017
The Turkish intervention in Northern Syria has been at a standstill for months as the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army isn’t pressing against the Assad regime to the south and can’t push east to the Euphrates so long as the Kurds have U.S. protection. But now Turkey’s President Erdogan is making noise about renewed military action against the Syrian Kurds, as Reuters reports:
“We will not leave the separatist organization in peace in both Iraq and Syria,” Erdogan said in a speech on Saturday in the eastern town of Malatya, referring to the YPG in Syria and PKK bases in Iraq. “We know that if we do not drain the swamp, we cannot get rid of flies.” [….]
Recent clashes have centered around the Arab towns of Tal Rifaat and Minnigh, near Afrin, which are held by the Kurdish YPG and allied fighters.
Erdogan said Turkey’s military incursion last year dealt a blow to “terrorist projects” in the region and promised further action. “We will make new and important moves soon,” he said.
Turkey has been steadily building up its forces along the Syrian border at various points opposite YPG-held territory, but the choice of where the Turks might strike is a difficult one. So far, the U.S. has responded by making its presence sufficiently obvious that any Turkish incursion would meet U.S. resistance. Last month, U.S. special forces deployed to Tal Abyad, driving around the border town in trucks flying American flags and shortly thereafter appeared on social media:
U.S. forces tour the SDF-held town of Tal Abyad. pic.twitter.com/A1WKdzr6pE
— Afarin Mamosta (@AfarinMamosta) June 27, 2017
Tal Abyad has been suspected as one possible incursion point because the Turks could then drive directly onto Raqqa and claim that they did it to fight terrorism. But so long as the U.S. retains a presence in Northeast Syria that seems unlikely. More troubling is the Turkish buildup around Afrin in the northwest, where there is no known U.S. presence. An attack on Afrin, which the U.S. could do little to stop, might provoke a crisis for all of Syria’s Kurds, who remain the U.S.’s primary ground force against ISIS.
We’ve written before about how the standoff between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds will remain a tinderbox going forward. The U.S. presence and commitment to Syria’s Kurds has escalated significantly under the Trump administration, even as the President has terminated support for anti-Assad rebels. So long as the U.S. maintains its presence in Syria, a crisis with Turkey can probably be averted. The question is how long the U.S. is willing to stay.