The US-Turkish plan for a new, collective offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant looked good on paper. It set out a neat division of labor as follows: Iran takes on the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and recruits Hizballah for the task in Syria and Lebanon; Turkey goes into action against ISIS mostly in Syria but also in Iraq. Jordan has already embarked on a pre-emptive operation behind Islamist lines in the Iraqi province of Anbar (see separate article); Egypt, with Israel’s backing, is battling the most poisonous ISIS arm outside the Islamic Caliphate, the Ansar Beit Al-Magdis of Sinai. Saudi Arabia is grappling with the insidious Islamic State influence spreading among its young men.
Even the Syrian insurgents were also supposedly in the mix.
The United States undertook to provide these military forces with air support, but also the occasional Special Forces operations as needed.
But when it got down to brass tacks, this formidable army tailored to vanquish Daesh fell into a messy heap, its components sizzling with conflicting interests and arguments and bound by constraints.
US agrees to withdraw Roosevelt as good will gesture to Iran
The Obama administration stepped forward on the right foot when, at long last, Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan consented to US warplanes using Turkish bases to take off for air strikes against the Islamic State. This provides the US air campaign with a major short cut, operationally and cost-wise, compared with the distance US bombers have been flying from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the only US aircraft carrier left in the region.
US Navy commanders welcomed the deal with Ankara for closing the “US carrier gap.”
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose that this was a reference to the Roosevelt and its strike group’s impending exit from the region, leaving a gap of several months before it is filled by another carrier – just at the moment that the latest US-led coalition campaign against the Islamists was supposed to start coming together.
Its departure is the result of a secret pledge the Obama administration gave Tehran to whisk the carrier out of Gulf waters. The promise, our sources report, was contained in one of the unpublished clauses of the nuclear accord signed in Vienna on July 14. It was meant as a show of American good will, as well as a test of Iran’s good behavior.
Iran’s leaders needed the Roosevelt’s exit to demonstrate to hardline critics at home of the nuclear accord that it had come up trumps for the Islamic Republic. The US administration needed it to show the accord’s opponents, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, that Tehran would stick to its obligations under the accord even in the absence of US military strength.
In any case, it would only be for a couple of months, after which US warplanes would have the more advantageous option of Turkish air bases for air strikes against the Jihadis.
More don’ts than dos in the US-Turkish anti-ISIS plan
The jihadists show no sign of being scared by the formidable new army taking shape to fight them. If anything, they seem to be encouraged. Taking the opposite view to the US military planners, who find strength in the size of the coalition, ISIS tacticians see its weaknesses. The more Middle East forces co-opted to the coalition fighting them, they believe, the sooner they will fall out amongst themselves and against Washington.
The Islamists are watching as the new front starts falling into disarray, opening up new opportunities for the Islamic Caliphate to add to its territory.
The surprise agreement for a joint anti-ISIS campaign signed last week between Washington and Ankara contained more don’ts than dos.
1. The US will be allowed to strike ISIS from Turkish air bases, while Turkey is permitted to conduct a dual operation against the Islamic State and “Kurdish terrorists” – as US officials referred to the outlawed Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party).
2. Immunity from attack was guaranteed the Assad regime’s army and the forces fighting in its cause, like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al Qods Brigades, Hizballah or the pro-Iranian Shiite militias. This followed a pledge Tehran had demanded of Washington and Ankara.
Ankara directs 90 percent of its air strikes against Kurds; 10 percent against ISIS
3. Neither the US nor Turkey may deploy ground forces on Syrian soil, although Turkey broke this commtment Saturday, July 25, by sending its tanks 2.5 km deep into Syria.
This prohibition was embodied in the US-Turkish plan after Moscow warned both capitals through back channels, that any ground forces treading on Syrian soil would cross a Russian red line against NATO intervention in the Syria war. Moscow would respond by dispatching Russian ground troops to Syria to defend the Assad regime.
Judging from its three guidelines, the joint US-Turkish campaign against the Islamic State looks like a sideshow for more pressing concerns.
Ankara sees its chance – not just to crack down on its veteran foe, the violent PKK, but also to put a big spoke in the wheel of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) separatist aspirations. Even though the Kurds have proved to be the only fighting force capable of recovering land seized by the Islamic State, the Erdogan regime is determined to crush the Kurdish group, along with its grand plan for an autonomous Syrian entity to link up with the Kurdish Republic of Iraq. This would create a continguous Kurdish state running from Irbil in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.
Therefore, our sources reveal, Turkey has directed 90 percent of its air strikes since Friday against PKK bases in Iraq and the YPG militia in Syria, directing only 10 percent against the Islamic State.
US disputes Ankara’s ISIS-free zone plan in Syria
Days after the US and Turkey announced their deal for fighting ISIS, they were already at cross-purposes on the scheme for a buffer zone in northern Syria. While Ankara was eager to designate a strip of land as an “Islamic State-free zone,” US officials began insisting Wednesday, July 29, that — contrary to reports – Washington definitely has no plans for a “safe zone” inside Syria – or any other zone at all.
The sudden dispute arose from the confusion in Washington over how to grapple with the Islamic State.
Ankara and Washington originally agreed on a strip of northern Syria to be carved out as an “Islamic State-free zone” – although the Americans wanted it to be smaller than the area Turkey charted. This was to be 90 km long and 40km wide and run from Marea in the west to Jarabulus on the Euphrates River bank, to the east. (See attached map.)
But Ankara’s scheme was to make it also a Kurdish-free zone, that would split Kurdish lands into two separate halves – a goal which had nothing to do with fighting ISIS, but everything to do with blocking any Kurdish drive for independence.
The Turks argued that if the Kurds were not held back, they would soon overrun the safe zone to achieve their goals. That they would also drive the Islamists out proved to be of minor concern to Ankara.
Turkey’s anti-Kurd maneuvers leave no ground force to preserve the safe zone
And so the Turkish account against the Kurds was neutralizing the only effective force capable of forging an “ISIS-free zone.” No other boots on the ground are in sight, following the pledge Ankara and Washington gave Tehran and Moscow. And aerial warfare alone has time and again in Mid East wars proved incapable of routing an enemy or expelling it from captured terrain. The US attempt to put forward “moderate” Syrian rebels for the task was ridiculed everywhere in the Middle East. Even Washington is cooling in its support for those insurgents, disappointed in their performance on the battlefield. Saudi Arabia, too, has qualified its assistance to those US-backed rebels, after discovering that their spearhead, the pro-Al Qaeda Nusra Front, works with the Islamic State ad hoc in certain operations.
This impasse left the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision-making body with scant leeway for active decisions at the rare emergency meeting its 28 members held Tuesday, July 28, at Turkey’s request. Ankara invoked Article 4, which allows member states to request a meeting if they feel their territorial integrity or security is under threat.
The meeting proclaimed “strong solidarity” with its member’s fight against the Islamic State group. But a NATO official said members used the closed-door meeting to call on Turkey not to use excessive force in reaction to terror attacks, and to pursue peace efforts with representatives of the Kurdish minority.