Conflicting US-Turkish “Green Lights” Potentially Clash in Syria
A meeting in Washington scheduled for May 16 is raising suspense to fever pitch in more than one world capital. It brings together two exceptionally unpredictable and strong-willed leaders, US president Donald Trump and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, a headstrong ruler who has brought relations with Washington into collision over the Kurds.
Each is capable of dropping an unexpected pre-emptive bombshell, political or military, on the other’s head.
Both bombshells are already primed to detonate.
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commanded by the Kurdish YPG militia, stands ready to lead the long-awaited offensive for liberating Raqqa from the Islamic State. Trump is capable of giving the SDF the green light to go forward while Erdogan is airborne, so that when the Turkish president arrives at the White House, he will find a fait accompli waiting for him.
Erdogan, for his part, while still aboard his the presidential flight to Washington, may order the Turkish army to open two fronts against Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq, including the YPG which is backed by America.
In Iraq, Turkish forces stand ready for their mission, which is to attack Sinjar, the northern Iraqi Turkman-Yazidi town, where the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) has set up a headquarters. (See attached map.)
Erdogan confirmed this when he said on April 29 “Turkey knows what to do and when to do it. We may come there to Sinjar overnight all of a sudden.”
Four days earlier, Turkish air strikes against Sinjar left six Kurdish Peshmerga dead and eight wounded.
The Turkish president later expressed “condolences for martyring a number of Peshmerga” in the attack on PKK bases, stating “it happened by mistake.” (The Peshmerga are the fighting force of the semiautonomous Kurdish Republic –KRG – of northern Iraq.)
But he also insisted that the PKK presence in Sinjar was unacceptable and “all the parties should get together to drive them out.”
That is not the only Erdogan war initiative in the works.
He has launched a cross-border operation to seize the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad north of Raqqa. Located on the Balikh River, Kurdish-ruled Tel Abyad is the Syrian twin of Akcakale just across the border in Turkey. Turkish forces are shelling the town. Local witnesses report Turkish air force over-flights, albeit without dropping bombs as yet.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say it is hard to see how the small group of US Marines rushed to the Syrian-Turkish border aboard eight-wheeled Strykers on Friday, April 28, can halt the Turkish army’s advances. The Turks could bypass them or hem them in, treating them to the sort of siege they inflicted last summer on the US air base at Incirllik in southern Turkey in the course of a failed coup against Erdogan.
For now, relations between the two presidents are so chaotic and inflammable that they could simultaneously order their respective troops to launch conflicting offensives – the US-led Kurdish-Arab, on the one hand, and the Turkish anti-Kurdish assault on either or both Tel Abyad and Sinjar, on the other.
Erdogan is offering Trump a deal, which is quite simply to cut the Kurdish YPG out of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition for Raqqa and replace it with Turkish troops.
But his previous offer of 3,000 troops was flatly rejected by the US president, who said that he needs at least 30,000 fighting men for the Raqqa offensive. Even then, Trump was talking off the cuff; neither Defense Secretary James Mattis nor national Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is willing to even consider any Turkish option. Indeed, not a single American general in the Syrian and Iraqi commands would agree to dismantle the Kurdish-Arab force they have built from the bottom up for the Raqqa campaign and implant Turkish soldiers in their stead.
Turkey’s last-ditch bid for a role in the operation came in the form of a proposal that would leave Turkish troops out of the fighting to capture Raqqa and restrict them to imposing a siege on the ISIS stronghold. By this tactic, Ankara hoped to minimize the scale of the Kurdish force engaged in the Raqqa offensive.
That offer was also dismissed out of hand in Washington.
The American equation for the Raqqa assault still has a big X factor. How will the Kurdish YPG militia conduct itself if the Turks choose that moment to hit its centers? Will the Kurds abandon the Raqqa front line and rush to the aid of their comrades in Sinjar or Tal Abyad?
Since no one knows the answer, a back-up plan was prepared by administration officials in Washington and CENTCOM officers on the spot, who obtained the consent of the KRG President Masoud Barzani and his Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani for Peshmerga forces to be deployed to fight off any Turkish aggressors.
But that deal is not waterproof either, given the delicate ties between the KRG capital of Irbil and Ankara and the economic crisis besetting the Kurdish republic.
The Kurdish problem looms large over Washington, Ankara and Irbil, especially because Kurd fighters are irreplaceable for the campaign against ISIS, as the only armed force with proven success in defeating the jihadis in Syria.