Turkey prepares for potential attack on Syrian Kurds

Turkey prepares for potential attack on Syrian Kurds
Analysis: As the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces assault against the Islamic State group in Raqqa begins, Turkey is reportedly training Syrian militiamen to attack, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
08 June, 2017
Turkey had for months urged the US not to work with Kurdish fighters [Getty]

As the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces assault against the Islamic State group in Raqqa gets underway, Turkey is reportedly training and preparing Syrian militia fighters to attack Syrian Kurdish forces in the future - if Ankara deems it necessary.

Turkey previously used hundreds of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters during its Euphrates Shield operation (August 2016 - March 2017) against IS and the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northwest Syria. According to Turkey's state-run Anadolu news, Ankara is providing these troops with more advanced training.

"It's no longer the old FSA in the field but a new FSA is being born," an unnamed Turkish official told Anadolu. "These FSA members in training will show their difference in future operations."

Throughout Euphrates Shield, Turkey's FSA allies demonstrated severe shortcomings in combat. IS were able to kill scores using well-placed explosive booby traps and ambushes.

The militia also proved inefficient at acting as infantry to guard Turkish tanks giving them fire support. This was one likely reason Turkish tanks, even some of their more modern and durable German-made Leopard IIs, were destroyed by militant anti-tank missile attacks.

Use of these Syrian proxies lessened Ankara's need to send larger numbers of troops - instead relying on its own smaller, more mobile special forces - and made their military's presence less overt, at least initially.

By the time the most serious fighting of Euphrates Shield took place, during IS's last stand in the city of al-Bab, Turkey had to beef up its own forces considerably.

Turkey had for months urged the US not to work with the SDF/YPG

Had the FSA units fighting in al-Bab received more comprehensive training beforehand they may have proven more resilient and lessened Ankara's need to pour in more of its own manpower.

When Turkey wrapped up Euphrates Shield, after capturing al-Bab, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim left open the possibility that Turkey would conduct further operations in Syria which "will be named differently". Any such operations would likely be aimed at the YPG, now that IS is no longer a force on Syria's border with Turkey.

The YPG is the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Turkey maintains that the group is inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Ankara opposes more than any other group in the region. The YPG founded, and is the primary component in, the SDF, an Arab-Kurdish umbrella group of anti-IS fighters in northeast Syria. They have stressed that primarily Arab forces in the SDF will enter Raqqa to remove IS, not Kurdish fighters.

Turkey had for months urged the US not to work with the SDF/YPG against IS but instead work with Ankara to capture Raqqa. They called for supporting local Arab forces, including the FSA, and ditching the PYD/YPG.

Although Prime Minister Yildirim did clarify that while Turkish troops would participate they would only provide "tactical support" and not participate directly in combat themselves. Given that the SDF/YPG force are probably the most competent forces on the ground in northeast Syria, and are taking a leading role against IS, the US didn't take Turkey up on this proposal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have come to terms with the fact that the US is going ahead with the SDF/YPG in Raqqa.

On April 25 the Turks bombed the YPG in Syria near US positions without giving them sufficient heads-up, much to the consternation of the US military 

"I saw that America is very sensitive about [the] Raqqa operation," Erdogan said on May 18. "We said: 'We cannot be in an operation where there are terror organisations. Wish you the best.'"

According to Erdogan, Ankara also told Washington: "If terror organisations pose a threat for us we will use our self-defence right and do what is necessary. We… won't consult anybody on this."

On April 25 the Turks bombed the YPG in Syria, near US positions, without giving them sufficient heads-up, much to the consternation of the US military. 

According to Metin Gurcan, a Turkish analyst, this attack "was Turkey's first simultaneous, coordinated air operation against PKK-linked targets in Iraq and Syria".

"While announcing the operation, Ankara officials did not feel the need to blame any attack from the other side as a pretext," Gurcan went on to note.

Shortly thereafter Erdogan also said Ankara would attack the group "overnight" anytime it chooses. This, coupled with Turkey's build-up of FSA proxies indicates that Ankara is keeping its powder dry regarding the PYD/YPG and remains ready to pounce at any moment.

Such a show of force, the kind Turkey has proven ready to resort to very quickly, will demonstrate Erdogan's resolve to attack.

And it allows him to save some face at home after losing his bid to convince the Americans to sideline the PYD/YPG.

Ankara says it will attack the YPG again if Turkey is attacked. 

The YPG recently alleged that Turkey was continuing to target their forces on their border territories of Afrin and Kobane. They also say that Turkish drones are constantly monitoring their positions - small remotely piloted drones of this kind can locate targets to pound with cross-border artillery bombardments.

Turkey is unlikely to shoot these forces in the back while the Americans are relying on them to capture Raqqa, Erdogan's statement seems to imply this.

However after the IS threat diminishes, along with the YPG's usefulness to the US, Turkey may claim a provocation in a future clash and make a significant move against their YPG adversaries, using heavy cross-border firepower in support of their "new" FSA proxies, southward of their volatile Syrian frontier.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon