Relations between Turkey and the U.S. are set on a collision course in another regional theater, Syria, after Ankara expressed strong resentment over a U.S. decision to allow the Syrian Kurdish militia to take the lead in a new operation to liberate Raqqa from the yoke of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
On Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik lamented about the U.S. decision, and brought Ankara’s demand forward over the reconsidering the role of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella organization of diverse rebel groups dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in an anticipated offensive against Raqqa.
After Turkey’s still ongoing dispute with Iraq over its desire to take part in the military campaign to capture Mosul, which caught the U.S. in the middle, Ankara and Washington again seem to appear on opposite sides over who should take the lead in the Raqqa operation. The U.S. has already declared that the SDF will be on the front lines to end ISIS rule in Raqqa to prevent ISIS militants from seeking refuge in the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate once it loses Mosul.
Therefore, in a military point of view, the U.S. attaches equal importance to the Raqqa offensive, which it says even will be much tougher and harder from the Mosul campaign, to inflict a dual blow to the group and its last strongholds.
The issue took an urgent air as Ankara displayed an eagerness to take action against the YPG in Syria.
For Turkish officials, YPG’s leading role is unacceptable. Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of its domestic insurgent group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decades-old fight against the Turkish state to carve up an autonomous zone in southeastern Turkey.
To the chagrin of Turkey, the U.S. regards the Kurdish group as the most effective unit against ISIS. In what seems a confirmation of that view, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said on Wednesday that the SDF was the only capable force that could isolate Raqqa. He also insisted that the YPG would be involved in that operation.
Given Turkey’s unflinching resistance, the U.S. commander acknowledged the delicacy of the situation and said the U.S. and Turkish officials are holding talks on the matter. In an attempt to soothe Turks’ anxiety, Pentagon chief Ash Carter said he is looking for ways that could ensure Turkey’s participation in the Raqqa operation.
The U.S. defense secretary, who last week in a failed mission tried to mediate the diplomatic row between Turkey and Iraq but failed to secure the consent of Iraqis to allow Turks to play a role in Mosul operation, praised Turkish intervention in Syria and capturing territory from the Islamic State.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a new round of tirades against the idea of including YPG in Raqqa operation. On Thursday, he sharpened his tone and said Turkey’s military endeavor in Syria will target Manbij, a town recently taken by the YPG-led forces from ISIS, and Raqqa.
Erdogan said in Ankara that he informed U.S. President Barack Obama about Turkey’s plans for the operation on Wednesday.
He noted that Turkey will march on al-Bab, before Manbij and Raqqa. Located north of Aleppo, al-Bab emerged as the new ground for jostling for control between the Syrian army, the Kurdish militia and the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
For the YPG, the strategic town is the only place that could serve as a launchpad to connect its fragmented cantons in the east and west as Turkey-backed forces previously captured Jarabulus from ISIS further north, thus sinking its earlier plan to unite its zones through Jarabulus across the Turkish border.
Turkey insists that Syrian Kurdish militias have not fulfilled its pledge to withdraw from Manbij. Ankara vows to ensure Kurds’ pullout from the town with a new front in its Euphrates Shield operation.
A contingent of Turkish tanks and artillery units forayed into northern Syria in late August to push back ISIS elements from the border, to liberate Jarabulus and to curb the expansion of Kurdish forces toward west of Euphrates. Turkey regards Kurdish bid to take control of large swathes of Turkish-Syrian border uninterruptedly as an imminent threat to its own national security. Turkey now seeks to expand the scope of its military endeavor in Syria by attacking the Kurdish militia.
“They will leave (Manbij). They will go to east of the Euphrates river. If not, we will do what is needed,” Erdogan said in Ankara.
Last week, Turkish fighter jets launched a series of airstrikes against Kurdish targets in northern Syria. A likely all-out war between the Turkish military and Kurdish militia creates a quandary for the U.S., which found itself between a rock and hard place, trying to navigate itself through diverse and conflicting realities of the battleground given its alliance with Turkey through NATO and its dependency on Kurds in the fight against ISIS.
Both Defense Minister Isik and Erdogan underlined that the YPG should not be seen as the only force in the long-awaited offensive against Raqqa. “I have told our American friends that we do not need [Syrian YPG] to fight Daesh,” Erdogan said. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the ISIS.
Erdogan also clamored for inclusion of Turkish forces or its allies in Raqqa operation instead of the Syrian Kurdish groups.
Syrian Kurds lay no claim on Raqqa, Saleh Muslim, head of the Syrian Kurdish PYD party, told Reuters. The PYD is aware of political risks associated with its drive toward Raqqa. But Muslim said his party will ensure that those who rule Raqqa are friendly and would not attack Kurds.