Turkey again threatened to launch an operation into eastern Syria if the US didn't come up with a "safe zone" to please Ankara. This puts US policymakers and the Department of Defense in an awkward position again, trying to please Turkey while also not creating instability among its Syrian Democratic Forces partners who helped to defeat Islamic State.
Turkey's threats are at least the third time this year that Ankara has claimed it would launch a military operation against areas that the US and its SDF partners have sought to stabilize. In January Turkey said that if the US didn't withdraw it would have to launch an operation. Then Turkey began making new threats in late July and early August, claiming it had informed Russia and the US about an upcoming operation. Washington rushed a team to Ankara to discuss a "security mechanism" that would rapidly address Turkey's concerns. Turkey decided in late August to test the US again. Ankara said it had no tolerance for US stalling.
So a month after threatening a crises with Washington, and having just got back from Moscow where Turkey wants to acquire more military hardware, Turkey's leaders are saying that in a "few weeks" it will launch its operation. It has been saying the same thing for a year almost. "Turkey has no time and patience and it wants a safe zone to be built along the eastern Euphrates line as soon as possible," Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech at the National Defence University, according to an August 31 article at Hurriyet.
The Special Operations section of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led Coalition to defeat ISIS, appeared to respond with a tweet on Saturday. "In the four months, the Coalition and our SDF partners detained more than 225 Daesh [ISIS] fighters. The SDF are capable and reliable partners that suffered thousands of casualties in the fight against Daesh. Now, they are maintaining stability and keeping Daesh from re-emerging in Northeast Syria."
The tweet is accompanied with a photo of SDF fighters, conveniently the patches on the man's arm in the foreground has been removed because sometimes these fighters wear People's Protection Units (YPG) badges or other flags that will enrage Ankara. Ankara accuses the YPG of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The Inherent Resolve webpage and twitter account also put out a statement supporting the SDF on August 31."The Syrian Democratic Forces detained more than 225 suspected Daesh fighters in the last 4 months and removed 4,000 pounds of explosives from the battlefield in the last two months," the Coalition said. It would be hard to believe the timing is coincidence of the Coalition's article "SDF still focused on defeating Daesh." The article notes that the SDF is continuing to pursue ISIS elements and that it is essential for stability and reconstruction to make sure that regional security is maintained. "Recently the SDF supported the US-Turkey security mechanism effort by removing fortifications and retrograding negotiated forces and heavy weapons away from the Turkey-Syria border," the statement says. It includes a quote from Gen. Eric Hill saying the SDF's efforts are critical to the safety and stability of the region."
This isn't the first time the US has used messaging and social media to support the SDF during times of Turkey's threats. A similar incident happened almost a month ago. The message is clear: The US is sticking with its partners.
Larger questions loom about the "security mechanism." Turkey wants to bluster as much as possible to see if it can get the US to do more of what it wants, such as removing more SDF units from the border. The overall goal of Turkey is eventually to control areas of eastern Syria like it did in Afrin and areas around Jarabulus across northern Syria. Then it wants to return refugees to these areas, as Ankara has said it will give Syria back to its "true owners." Getting the SDF to removing defensive fortifications are a way for Ankara to weaken the SDF when and if Turkey launches a ground offensive. The question for the SDF is how far it will go to assuage US desires to both work with Turkey and support the unique accomplishments in eastern Syria. At each juncture where a crisis emerges, the situation is fraught with problems because other players, such as the Syrian regime and Iran also want to exploit tensions in eastern Syria. The Syrian regime, with Russian support, would like to engineer a US withdrawal and then it would like to leverage Turkey's threats to get the SDF to give up eastern Syria to the regime.
Russia plays a key role here, emboldening Turkey's threats a bit through arms sales to Turkey, while also working with the Syrian regime, playing both sides a bit with the hopes of weakening the US role. The same thing is happening in Idlib where Russia works with Damascus and its military offensive against Syrian rebels, while also working with Turkey which supposedly protects the rebels. Of course, this can't go on forever, eventually something has to break, either the US, or the Turkey-Russia honeymoon, or the SDF's willingness to give up what it sacrificed thousands for. If the SDF feels it is just being used to fight ISIS and sacrifice while not receiving assurances for long term commitments, its political echelons might continue the feelers it put out to Damascus last year. It understands that it faces a third act denouement eventually with the US wanting to leave and Turkey and the regime both seeking to rush into the vacuum.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019). He is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.