Turkey Invades Syria
American Response and Military Outcome
This week, Turkey invaded Afrin, a district of Syria which has been controlled by Syrian Kurds ever since al Qaeda and ISIS forced out of the area. Turkish officials say they plan to set up a buffer zone extending almost 20 miles into Syria from the Turkish border. As proof that this invasion has a strong domestic aspect, Turkish President Erdogan has threatened Turkey’s Kurds population not to support the Syrian Kurds during this invasion.
Like all leaders who invade a neighbor, Erdogan promised a victory within “a very short period of time.”
At this time, actual results are hidden behind the “fog of war.” However, it appears that Turkey has advanced into Syria, with mixed if not limited results. There are reports that Syrian Kurds have thrown back Turkish forces around Afrin.
Turkish warplanes began the air campaign against Syrian Kurdish positions along the Syrian-Turkish border on January 20th, 2018. Turkish Armed Forces fought Kurdish forces on multiple fronts along the northern border with armored forces.
In a sign that the Turks are coordinating with Russia, Russian forces withdrew from Afrin and reinforced Russian positions near Tel Rifaat. Turkish Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan met with Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu in Moscow on January 18th to coordinate the operation.
Turkey also took steps with Russia to limit the risk of a Syrian escalation. Assad threatened to shoot down Turkish warplanes on January 18th although the Russian anti-air systems in Syria pose the biggest risk. However, Turkey deployed electronic warfare systems to counter possible Syrian government air defense.
Russia’s goal in the negotiation with Turkey seemed to ensure that Syrian President Assad’s forces can secure and defend Aleppo City against possible future attack.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, it appears that the “Turkish objectives are to secure the Syrian-Turkish border, isolate Afrin city, seize the Mennagh airbase, secure ground lines of communication, and establish a new forward line of troops to serve as a future “de-escalation” line with pro President Assad forces including Russia. Turkish officials have also stated that they will attack the Syrian Kurdish militia-held town of Tel Rifaat. They may pursue that secondary phase after they accomplish their prior objectives. Tel Rifaat is a priority for Turkish-backed opposition groups but not critical for Turkey’s goals.”
Meanwhile, the American response has been mixed. The White House sent out a message aimed at mollifying Turkey’s president on Tuesday, suggesting that the United States was easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds.
That message was quickly contradicted by the Pentagon, which said it would continue to stand by the Kurds, even as Turkey invaded their stronghold in northwestern Syria. A senior American commander praised the partnership with the Kurds, whose help was critical in a major American airstrike on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, over the weekend.
“U.S. forces are training local partners to serve as a force that is internally focused on stability and deterring ISIS,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said in the statement. “These local security forces are aimed at preventing the potential outflow of fleeing ISIS terrorists as their physical presence in Syria nears its end and pending a longer-term settlement of the civil war in Syria to ensure that ISIS cannot escape or return.”
Later, Trump called Erdogan and the usual diplomatic statements about concern for violence in the region and working together to avoid future fighting. Part of the White House statement made afterwards read, “President Trump also expressed concern about destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey, and about United States citizens and local employees detained under the prolonged State of Emergency in Turkey. The two leaders pledged to improve the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey, particularly in fostering regional stability and combating terrorism in all its forms, including ISIS, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), al-Qa’ida, and Iranian-sponsored terrorism.”
However, there were no concrete movements made to stop the invasion.
The conflicting statements appeared to reflect an effort by the administration to balance competing pressures. Turkey, which opposes American support for the Kurds, is a NATO ally, while the Kurds have been critical American partners in the war against the Islamic State.
However, despite the White House statements to mollify the Turks, the US military is firmly involved in supporting Kurdish military units. While Turkish aircraft were bombing Kurdish positions last Saturday, 150 ISIS fighters were killed in American airstrikes near As Shafah, Syria. The air strikes were guided by the Kurdish-led militia, called the Syrian Democratic Forces. Apparently, when push comes to shove, President Trump and the Pentagon will stand behind the Kurds, who are critical to defeating ISIS.
In fact, the commander of the United States Central Command, General Joseph L. Votel, said in an interview last month that American forces would remain in eastern Syria, alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, as long as needed to defeat the Islamic State.
However, expect the support for the Kurds to be covert, so as to prevent an irreparable fracture in the NATO partnership. The US already has arms pipelines to the Kurds and these can be expected to remain open. The US will continue to arm the Kurds; including portable anti-air missiles, which can shoot down Turkish aircraft and helicopters and anti-tank weapons.
In order to limit tensions, Turkey will be loath to attack Manbij, home to a contingent of United States Special Operations troops who are training and equipping Kurdish forces that control the city. A Turkish/American skirmish in Manbij would have serious and permanent ramifications.
Turkey versus the Kurds – Who Will Win?
Turkey has the second largest military in NATO and is only outnumbered by the US military. It has a massive conventional army with a large number of tanks. However, their armored forces are composed of older Cold War tanks like the American M60 and German Leopard 2A4. The designs for these tanks are over 50 years old.
Another problem is that the Turkish Army has more experience in staging coups against the government and repressing the Turkish population (especially minorities) than fighting outside Turkey. In fact, the last true conflict that the Turkish Army fought was the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. The Turkish Army did fight in Cyprus, but its opposition was the inferior Cypriot National Guard.
Recent Turkish military operations haven’t been very successful. In 2012, Syrian forces downed a Turkish F-4, and Kurds have downed Turkish helicopters. Inside Turkey, terrorists have made once safe cities like Istanbul, despite military deployments to these cities. Even the Turkish controlled areas in Syria were occupied without any major fighting.
In recent years, the Turkish military has undergone purges by Erdogan that are reminiscent of Stalin’s military purges in the 1930s. Not only have many Turkish officers seconded to overseas NATO commands sought political asylum, one in four Turkish pilots are currently sitting in Turkish jails.
Meantime, the Kurds have become a combat seasoned fighting force. They have been trained by US Special Forces over the last three decades and have fought with them in major battles against Iraqi armored units.
The Kurds have also been supported by the Israelis, who see them as neutralizing Syria. And, we can expect Israel to continue supporting the Kurds, no matter what America does.
The Kurdish militia has been the most effective fighting force on the ground in Syria against al Qaeda and ISIS. And, at Kobane and elsewhere, their discipline, high morale, and cohesion paid off. If the US continues to support the Kurds, Turkey will have a hard time defeating them.
If Erdogan can’t defeat the Kurds, his political position becomes precarious. Historically, Russia and Turkey have been enemies and it’s hard to believe that their current alliance of convenience is more than a temporary truce – especially since they have differing views of who should have the greatest influence in Syria.
Erdogan is also likely to face more opposition inside Turkey. Fighting Syrian Kurds in Syria is only going to increase domestic unrest amongst the Turkish Kurds and other minorities. And, ethnic Turks will be unwilling to support the war if Turkey doesn’t quickly win and Turkish soldiers start dying in Syria. Will Turkey continue to support Erdogan if Syria becomes a bleeding sore as Vietnam was for the US?
Erdogan may want to remember Turkey’s history of 100 years ago. After losing World War One, the Ottoman Empire, which had been part of the Central Powers, was ripped apart and large parts of their empire were ceded to the winning nations of Great Britain, France, and Italy. The result was the rise of a Turkish Army officer Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, and a cadre of nationalist collaborators.
It was Ataturk, who brought about the modern, secular Turkey – the Turkey that turned towards the West and the Turkey that Erdogan is trying to eliminate.
Erdogan’s venture into Syria is fraught with risk if Turkey can’t quickly defeat the Kurds. In that case, Erdogan may end up in the dustbin of Turkish history like the House of Osman.
A Strategy for Syria: Tillerson Must Look for Leverage
By Jon Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 24, 2018
Almost a year into the Trump administration, there still isn’t much of a Syria strategy. Momentum has drifted away from the Geneva-based negotiations on Syria’s political future, which the United States has backed, and toward security-oriented negotiations in which Russia has had the strongest hand. When Secretary of State Tillerson quietly announced he was giving a Syria talk at Stanford last week, hopes rose that a strategy might be announced. The talk Tillerson gave fell short of a strategy, in part because it seems the Trump administration hasn’t yet agreed on one. A strategy requires both actions and resources, and Tillerson didn’t have much to say about either. As the conflict in Syria moves into a new phase, the administration needs to be bolder in asserting its interests, and it must increase its influence over how Syria’s conflict is resolved.
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Back to What Future? What Remains for Syria’s Displaced People
By KHEDER KHADDOUR
January 18, 2018
The Islamic State has suffered major reversals in eastern Syria with the liberation of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. But this alone will not facilitate a large-scale return of refugees. Both governorates have lost their status as economic hubs, and rival actors are vying for control. Rising Kurdish-Arab tensions and potentially abusive security screening methods implemented by forces backed by the international coalition have all increased instability and unpredictability. This reduces the prospect of return.
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Iran’s Cyber Threat: Espionage, Sabotage, and Revenge
By COLLIN ANDERSON and KARIM SADJADPOUR
January 04, 2018
Incidents involving Iran have been among the most sophisticated, costly, and consequential attacks in the history of the internet. The four-decade-long U.S.-Iran cold war has increasingly moved into cyberspace, and Tehran has been among the leading targets of uniquely invasive and destructive cyber operations by the United States and its allies. At the same time, Tehran has become increasingly adept at conducting cyber espionage and disruptive attacks against opponents at home and abroad, ranging from Iranian civil society organizations to governmental and commercial institutions in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
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Mike Pence in the Middle East: The new point man on foreign policy?
By John R. Bolton
American Enterprise Institute
January 24, 2018
Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel exemplifies how much the Trump administration has changed America’s Middle East policy in its first year. Initiatives to destroy the ISIS caliphate and combat international terrorism, reverse the misguided Obama administration policies on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its pursuit of regional hegemony, and launch new efforts on the Arab-Israeli peace process all emerged in 2017. Considerable difficulties remain on all these fronts, but Pence has underscored the administration’s commitment in what will concededly be a long, hard slog.
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Time for the US military to get its swagger back
By Mackenzie Eaglen
American Enterprise Insstitute
January 19, 2018
While the Pentagon’s new strategy is being released in 2018, it is more like the year 2000 on Capitol Hill with members itching for the maverick spirit of then-presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express. The substance of the document is classified at the request of Capitol Hill, but there is a growing consensus about how to grade its success or failure. It is past time for a new National Defense Strategy that seeks to break the mold in honesty, clarity, conciseness, and fresh thinking. As an official articulation of Pentagon doctrine, this is an opportunity to mend the broken dialogue between the military and the government and people they serve.
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The Others: Foreign Fighters in Libya
By Aaron Y. Zelin
Over the past seven years of revolution and civil war, Libya has experienced a massive influx of foreign fighters. This development deserves attention not just for the domestic menace it poses but also because Libya offers a potential future jihadist hub amid the 2017 collapse of Islamic State centers in Iraq and Syria. Particularly worrisome in the Libyan theater have been the outsize role of Tunisian fighters and a rise in recruitment in continental Africa.
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The UAE/Qatar Rivalry Is Escalating
By Simon Henderson
January 17, 2018
After several months of relative quiet, Qatar’s row with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt has heated up again due to a quick-fire series of developments: On January 11, the Qatar News Agency reported that Doha had complained to the United Nations about a UAE fighter briefly intruding into its airspace on December 21. On January 13, Qatar asserted that a UAE military transport had flown through its airspace on January 3 en route to Bahrain. On January 14, marginal Qatari sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani alleged that he was being held against his will in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. Last August, he had met with Saudi leaders in a move that was interpreted as Riyadh labeling him their preferred replacement for Qatar’s ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Doha condemned his action, spurring him into exile in the UAE. On January 15, the Emirates News Agency reported that Abu Dhabi had complained to the UN after two Emirati airliners were approached by Qatari fighters while preparing to land in Bahrain. On January 17, the exiled Sheikh Abdullah reportedly flew to Kuwait for a medical checkup in a military hospital, belying his claim that he could not leave the UAE.
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How Can Saudi Arabia and Egypt Help Confront Toxic Ideologies?
By Joseph Braude and Samuel Tadros
January 22, 2018
Some Saudis outside the government, primarily media figures, have been trying to counter extremist ideologies in their midst for some time. In recent years, they have expressed optimism about Riyadh’s new policies and are very interested in international partnerships to improve their effectiveness. These are not dissidents; they are establishment voices pushing the boundaries of the small space they have been given.
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