Ankara Amps up the Turkish-Pentagon Proxy War in Syria

Turkish invasion of northern Syria pits it against a US-backed Kurdish Militia

As early as February this year i was pointing out that a part what is taking place in Syria amounts to and is properly understood as a de facto proxy war between the United States and Turkey in Syria. I wrote:

There is no other word for it. Turkey is now waging a proxy war against US in Syria. It has always been clear that Turkish and American interests in Syria do not necessarily match, but until now Turkey had refrained from using its military to blast those contrary US interests to high heaven.

That’s all changed now that it has emerged that Turkey is now bringing its military force to bear not only against its old enemy the Syrian Kurds, but also an allied formation that is a US creation from the get-go.

So far so good – except for one little detail – Turkey is doing its utmost to stall and rebuke the SDF advance, including pounding it with artillery. So here is the situation we have: the US comes up with an idea on how to finally create a proxy army for itself in Syria that is neither ISIS, nor Nusra, nor Assad (nor overtly Kurdish nationalist) and the Turks do everything in their power to blow it the hell up.

I imagine that to many the idea of a Turkish-American proxy war in Syria must have seemed far-fetched since Turkey and the US are NATO allies, but really it should not have been.

We have to recall that in Syria the US is bolstering two mutually opposing war efforts at the same time — one against the Syrian state, the other against ISIS  — one favored by the CIA and the State Department, the other by the US military. In a world where different branches of the American state itself find themselves on opposing sides of Syria’s complex civil war a proxy war between the US military and its Turkish counterpart is almost boring by comparison.

Now the mainstream may be slowly waking up to this war for a simple reason that Turkey has just amped it up to eleven.

A joint Turkish-rebel offensive smashed down from the Turkish side of the Syrian border to take the Syrian town of Jarabulus which was held by ISIS but sandwiched between Turkey to the north and the and the Kurdish-dominated SDF to the east and south.

Trouble is once ISIS was run out the Turks did not stop but are driving ahead and chipping away at SDF controlled territory.

Yes, that’s right. Turkish military is now dislodging the Kurds from territories they captured together with American special forces troops and with US intelligence, logistical and air support.

Proposed Turkish occupation zone before the Manbij offensive

Proposed Turkish occupation zone before the Manbij offensive

You will recall that when SDF and the Pentagon launched the Manbij offensive across the Euphrates river the Americans said this was not really violate the Turkish “red line” of no Kurdish presence beyond the Euphrates because once Manbij fell the Kurdish YPG would pull back leaving only the Arab component of the SDF to garrison the newly-captured areas.

In fact this pullback never took place, as I predicted it would probably not:

Turkish interests and wishes remain a high priority for the US. Short of stopping the SDF offensive it is doing everything, and saying everything to keep the fallout with Ankara to a minimum. Thus US has said it’s actually Arab SDF units which are leading this offensive, with YPG merely “helping”, and has claimed that after offensive ends YPG will retreat back across the Euphrates and leave Arabs to garrison the newly-captured areas alone. Americans have also said that Turkey backs the new offensive, which the Turks promptly denied.

The rest of what Americans are saying is equally unbelievable. The Kurdish YPG forms at least three quarter of SDF battle strength. So far it has been its Arab units who have served as auxiliaries for the Kurds rather than the other way around, and this is likely true for the current push on Manbij as well.

The idea that once they bleed for it YPG fighters will simply evacuate and hand over the areas take over is unlikely for three reasons. A.) Kurds want these areas as a link to the majority-Kurdish Afrin enclave. B.) Kurds have already proclaimed they see the area as a ‘canton’ in the Kurdish-dominated Rojava autonomous region of Syria (proclaimed this March) and C.) the area is not wholly Arab but includes a number of Kurdish populated villages, and Manbij itself has a significant Kurdish minority. 

What we did not predict was the Turkish response. Mind you this was before the attempted coup in Turkey and subsequent downgrading of Ankara-Washington relations. Firstly I think that Erdogan is genuinely upset the White House failed to decisively condemn the putschists early on and was clearly willing to embrace a post-Erdogan Turkey. Doubtlessly he sees this as a betrayal and a stab in the back. Rather than sulk, however, he has cleverly used the coup fallout to expand his space of maneuver.

By demanding the US extradites Fethulah Gulen whom he blames for the coup, but who has been a CIA asset for 20 years and whom the US can therefore not give up without a devastating prestige hit he buys himself added independence from the imperial court in Washington.

He can move his army across the border into Syria, to hit, rollback and ideally subdue and neutralize the very same force that is the center-piece of US’ war against ISIS and which is laden with US trainers and helpers. When the US angrily objects as it is doing he can point out to Gulen and say US is in no position to protest when it won’t do Ankara even the courtesy of extraditing Turkey’s public enemy number one.

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The interesting thing to observe here has been the relatively subdued response. The week prior clashes broke out between the dominant Kurds and government forces penned in in a small enclave in Hasakah in Northeastern Syria. When Syrian military flew air sorties in support of surrounded government enclave the US — seemingly oblivious to the fact it is in Syria illegally — offered an explosive reaction warning it will not tolerate Syrian or Russian aircraft in the area seeing how they might endanger US troops. The US went so far as to confront and chase away a pair of Syrian jets.

By contrast since the Turks smashed into the Kurdish militia with artillery, special forces and armor the US is “calling on all armed actors to stand down immediately and take appropriate measures to deconflict.” Ie the Americans are not even willing to identify the Turks as being on the offensive much less threaten them as they did the Syrians and the Russians.

This is all the more spineless when one considers where US troops in Syria are actually located. While there are apparently (so the Pentagon claims) US troops in Hasakah province they are extremely unlikely to be near the government-Kurdish line of control. The truth is even YPG presence around Syrian government territory in Northeastern Syria is usually light and the border tends to be manned by the lightly-armed Kurdish police, the Asayish instead. The idea US troops would be anywhere near the Syrian-Kurdish clashes is fanciful.

On the other hand the SDF Manbij offensive was visibly a joint Kurdish-American project. US troops crossed the Euphrates river together with the Kurds — some of them wearing YPG insignia. It is far more likely that Americans would find themselves in Turkish crosshairs around Manbij than in Russian ones in Hasakanah. — Of course the difference here is that the Russians and the Syrians aren’t a part of the Empire — but the Turks are.

Turkey isn’t as central to the Empire as the State Department, the CIA, the Congress, the Washington think-tankistan, the NATO, the IMF or the Saudi royal family but it is one of its peripheral parts and agents. Thus because it is within the American camp Ankara can pursue rogue policies that step on the toes of America’s own military and so far avoid a decisive rebuke from Washington.

This article also appeared at Russia Insider