Erdogan and Putin Shut US out of Role in N. Syria
US President Barack Obama has made a date to meet with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sept. 4 during the G20 summit in China. There is also a tentative arrangement for him to hold informal talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Both encounters are bound to cover the latest events rushing forward headlong in northern Syria.
So what situation will the three leaders, when they get together in China, face in the escalating Turkish-Kurdish conflict? And how are they likely to handle the havoc building up in northern Syria?
The most sensible course would be for the US president to invite Putin and Erdogan on the spot for a trilateral sit-down, at which the US and Russian presidents would together make a stab at reining in the Turkish leader’s full-blown military offensive.
However, Putin and Erdogan are not likely to play along with an American initiative of this kind.
Anyway, it is a fact that none of the players took any notice of US Vice President Joe Biden’s intervention on Aug. 24, when he warned the Kurdish YPG militia from Ankara that if they failed to withdraw east of the Euphrates River they would lose US support.
Neither did any of the parties respond to the call by US special envoy Brett McGurk on “all the armed actors in the fight against the Islamic State in northern Syria to stand down.”
The Kurdish fighters not only stood their ground, but went ahead to build up more strength west of the Euphrates, in response to the Turkish military incursion of Aug. 24.The Syrian Kurdish party quietly circulated call-up orders among the 4.5 million compatriots dwelling west of the Euphrates, as well as calling the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey and the Peshmerga militia of Iraq to the flag.
Turkey is meanwhile continuing to pump armored, ground and artillery forces into northern Syria in preparation for a decisive assault on Manbij, 30 km west of the Euphrates. There, the Syrian Kurds have concentrated their main force since liberating this north Syrian town from ISIS with US support last month.
Turkish war planners worked initially on the hypothesis that the loss of Manbij would cause the entire Kurdish front west of the river to crumble.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, they quickly realized they had miscalculated. Defeating the Kurdish defenders would not be a cake walk and long weeks of arduous struggle were ahead for pushing the Kurdish fighters out of the region
The Kurdish militia, for its part, is in no mood to let go of Manbij, the fruit of its signal victory against ISIS – even when ordered to do so by its American ally.
That both Ankara and the Syrian Kurds have no compunctions about flouting Washington’s vacillating directives is the direct consequence of the breakdown of US-Russian talks on military and intelligence cooperation in Syria. The impasse was revealed in Geneva Friday, Aug. 26, after the last meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Moscow saw that the Turkish invasion of Syria two days earlier had opened up a whole new batch of opportunities for escaping the narrow bed offered by cooperating with Washington.
While Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was content with this turn of events, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was deeply alarmed. He saw the collapse of cooperation with Moscow as setting the scene for Turkey to declare northern Syria a no-fly zone with tacit Russian support; and US routes for air strikes against the Islamic State would be effectively blocked – both from the southern Turkish Incirlik air base and the US aircraft carrier cruising opposite Syria.
Carter ordered his staff to open immediate lines of communication with Russia “to deconflict air operations in Syria.” The staffers assigned to run the talks were not named, but the defense secretary said that the details of their conversations, including their timing, would be worked out “in the coming days.”
Carter clearly saw a crisis looming that presented real danger to US flights and air crews over Syria.
In a statement released later, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook spelled this out. Those lines of communications are to ensure that ongoing coalition air operations are not interrupted by any future Russian military activity, ”as well as the safety of coalition air crews,” he said.
“We do not want an accident to take place,” he added.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources note that the Kremlin is in no hurry to open up the lines of communications that were earlier closed to President Obama and Secretary Kerry.
The new situation growing out of the Turkish offensive will have a major impact on America’s military set-up against ISIS in northern Iraq.