Two months after Ankara threatened to launch an operation into northern Syria, where US forces are present, the US and Turkey seem to be working closely on a "security mechanism" that supposedly seeks to fulfill Turkey's concerns about Syria.
On Saturday, the sixth aerial overflight by the US and Turkey took place in eastern Syria. Under the "security mechanism" that was announced in August, the US and Turkey work together with military to military teams in Turkey which coordinate these flights and other issues in northern Syria. US Maj.-Gen. Eric T. Hill, commander of the Special Operations Joint Task Force of Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS campaign, said these overflights were important for "all involved."
The US has limited forces on the ground in northeastern Syria.
The problem for the US is that it has limited forces on the ground in eastern Syria and is trying to simultaneously balance several challenges. First, it wants to continue the mission to defeat ISIS. This has been successful because of the partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that includes Kurds and others in eastern Syria which the US has helped train, assist and advise during the war on ISIS. The SDF liberated Raqqa in 2017 and in the spring of 2019 ISIS was finally defeated in its last stronghold near the Euphrates River. But ISIS sleeper cells remain a threat.
Second, the US faces a continuing problem in Al-Hol camp where tens of thousands of ISIS supporters ended up after the defeat of ISIS. The camp's residents are becoming increasingly radicalized as they use their ability to move freely within the camp to reorganize ISIS cells and support ISIS. The residents are women and children, but they pose a threat. Meanwhile other ISIS male members held in detention in eastern Syria remain without trial because their home countries will not take them back and the eastern Syrian authorities linked to the SDF have not found a way to constitute war crimes trials for the ISIS perpetrators. Maj.-Gen. Hill called the issues in Al-Hol a "wicked problem" according to a tweet by the Special Operations Joint Task Force.
A third challenge for the US is placating Turkey which continues to threaten to launch a military operation in eastern Syria. Despite the US overflights and getting the SDF to destroy defensive fortifications in areas in eastern Syria, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey could still act if a "safe zone" is not established in Syria. Turkey once again says its "preparations" for an offensive are complete, and that the US is moving to slowly to pave the way for Turkey's safe zone that will extend 32 km. into Syria.
Reuters says Turkey wants the "Syrian Kurdish forces" pushed away from the border. "We have no wish to come face to face with the US. However, we cannot afford to overlook the support that the US is giving to a terrorist organization." Rather than respond to the constant threats and claims the US is aiding terrorists, the Trump administration seeks to work more closely with Turkey.
There is no evidence Ankara is appeased. Instead it likely thinks that more threats will get it a larger role in northern Syria, and it understands that eventually it will create daylight between the US and the SDF, damaging the SDF partnership and forcing the US to choose between Ankara and eastern Syria.
For now, the SDF is complying in the hope of preventing a Turkish military operation. In January 2018, the SDF watched as Turkey took over Afrin and 160,000 Kurds were made homeless while Syrians from other parts of Syria were settled in Afrin, changing the demographics of the historically Kurdish area. The SDF knows that enabling, even by policy errors, another Afrin in eastern Syria would be seen as a monumental betrayal by locals who helped defeat ISIS.
But the cards are stacked against the SDF. ... Turkey has declared it wants to resettle 1,000,000 Syrian refugees now in Turkey in eastern Syria. At the September 18 meeting the US was asked if Turkey will eventually control the "safe zone" it demands. The US said it was working on a military arrangement that ensures security. "As to the longer term implications for the security mechanism, we remain focused on protecting Turkey security concerns and taking those into account while at the same time maintaining the [Defeat] ISIS campaign."
The US says that its initial steps include an area along the border from Tell Abyad to Ras al-Ayn. The word "initial" indicates more is to follow. The US says it has talked with Turkey and that "we have an understanding of where the initial steps will occur." However, Washington refuses to provide numbers or guidance on how far the security mechanism will go.
The 'security mechanism' could result in Turkish forces moving into northern Syria.
The September 18 press conference indicated the security mechanism could result in Turkish forces moving into northern Syria in areas which the Kurdish People's Protection forces have been removed from. According to the statement, the US is setting up local forces but doesn't want a security vacuum to result.
"That may ultimately result in needing more forces that we would work with, with Turkey and others to address." The US says it is "inserting US military and Turkish military into an area to execute patrols, aerial reconnaissance, in some cases removal of fortifications." The US also provides a monthly report to Turkey about supplies, including arms and vehicles, sent to eastern Syria. But the US says that it is convinced "as we work with Turkey, the idea of a Turkish incursion into Syria has gone down substantially."
Time will tell if the US-backed security mechanism is a way for Turkey to achieve a permanent military presence in northern Syria, or just a way to delay another crises with Ankara and keep US partners fighting ISIS. For now, it appears that the mission to defeat ISIS is increasingly focused on trying to manage a complex relationship with Turkey, and that the US is becoming more involved in the minutiae of who controls what at the level of the local councils. Given the US track record at trying to manage state-building and these kinds of controversies elsewhere, from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond, it would be surprising if the security mechanism doesn't merely put off deeper questions for the next few months until a new crisis emerges.
There doesn't seem to be any way to both satisfy Ankara and get the SDF to continue fighting ISIS.
There doesn't seem to be any way to both satisfy Ankara's view and continue to get the SDF to fight ISIS. In the long term, Ankara understands the more it pressures the US, the more the US will work with Ankara, and the more the SDF will come to realize it is fighting to keep Raqqa safe while being asked to hand over other parts of eastern Syria to another Afrin-style incident. Should the SDF provokes a crisis with the US, it will be seen as an unreliable partner, accused of working with Damascus and fueling Turkey's claims for northern Syria. For ISIS sleeper cells, nothing could be more pleasing than to watch this policy chaos unfold two years after losing Raqqa.
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 (2019), the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.