Turkey's Syria policy: Fighting IS to contain the Kurds

Turkey's Syria policy: Fighting IS to contain the Kurds
Analysis: Ankara wants its forces to be the ones to vanquish the Islamic State group from Raqqa, to stop Kurdish groups from laying claim to the city, writes Paul Iddon.
6 min read
17 February, 2017
Turkey's allied FSA fighters have laid siege to al-Bab for three months [Anadolu]
As at least 1,300 Turkish soldiers and 2,000 accompanying Free Syrian Army (FSA) militiamen push into al-Bab, the Islamic State group's last major stronghold in northwest Syria, Turkish officials are once again talking about advancing on Raqqa.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even said on February 13, in a speech on the island kingdom of Bahrain, that his country intends to capture IS' de-facto capital and make it part of a 4,000 square kilometre "safe zone" for displaced Syrians in Syria and Syrian refugees in Turkey alike.

He made his comments shortly after US President Donald Trump called for the creation of such a zone.

While Turkey has focused on targeting IS militants, it has also bombed and clashed with Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) since their Euphrates Shield incursion began on August 24.

In recent months Erdogan and other Turkish officials have frequently voiced their desire to capture the city of Manbij from the YPG - and the Syrian Democratic Forces Arab-Kurdish coalition, of which it is a major component.

Manbij was captured from IS by the SDF and a contingent of YPG fighters last August.

Even Ankara's stated goal of capturing Raqqa is, in large part, aimed at containing the Kurds. Since day one of Euphrates Shield it was clear that Turkey wanted to secure a large foothold in northwest Syria to stop the Kurds connecting their cantons.

The operation was launched after the SDF were consolidating their control over Manbij and were aiming to continue on to al-Bab. Instead, Turkey seized Jarablus and raced the SDF to al-Bab, inserting their forces directly between SDF forces coming from Syrian territories in northeast Syria and the tiny isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin to the northwest.

Last year, Erdogan urged the United States several times to essentially ditch the SDF/YPG and work together with Turkey to seize Raqqa. This hasn't happened, instead Washington has backed an ongoing SDF offensive - named Operation Wrath of the Euphrates - against Raqqa.

This offensive has made significant progress: latest estimates put the SDF a mere ten kilometres north and northwest of Raqqa, after advancing through the province's countryside and killing more than 600 IS militants in the process.

Nevertheless, Ankara seems to be signalling it still believes that its plan for Raqqa should be implemented, reiterating its argument that letting the YPG take Raqqa would be equivalent to letting one terrorist group seize the city from another.

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As Erdogan put it in an October 27 phone call with then President Barack Obama: "We do not need terrorist organizations like the PYD [Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party] and YPG in the Raqqa operation. Let us work together to sweep Daesh [IS] from Raqqa."

More recently, on February 13, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus claimed: "If you said, 'We'll liberate Raqqa but replace [IS] with the PYD/YPG,' this would create a first-degree national security threat to Turkey."

If you said, 'We'll liberate Raqqa but replace [IS] with the PYD/YPG,' this would create a first-degree national security threat to Turkey

These statements indicate that Turkey, while dedicating military resources to rout IS from parts of Syria, is motivated heavily, if not entirely, by its desire to contain the PYD/YPG - which it sees as allies of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (the PKK), an armed insurgent group with whom Turkey has fought a 40-year war.

Erdogan's statement about creating a safe zone in Raqqa could also be part of this. Ankara controls approximately 100km of the northwest of the Syrian frontier with Turkey.

The vast majority of the border, approximately 820km, is controlled by the Kurds - therefore any plan for a safe zone in northern Syria would necessitate working with the Kurds to help them facilitate inflows of refugees to their territory - especially from Raqqa.

Were Ankara to succeed in capturing Raqqa and establishing a safe zone there, they could potentially circumvent any need for Syrian Kurdish territory to be used as a safe zone.

This action could ensure the PYD-ruled region doesn't attain renewed legitimacy and elevated importance in the eyes of the international community - the last thing Ankara wants.

Given the close proximity of the SDF to Raqqa, the Turks would either have to fight both the SDF/YPG and IS in Raqqa simultaneously, or negotiate some form of an SDF/YPG withdrawal before or after the city were captured.

This is what they originally agreed to in Manbij - agreeing to a largely Arab SDF force capturing the city from IS. Ankara has since threatened to seize Manbij by force of arms, saying that the YPG would still maintain a presence there that could threaten Turkey. It would therefore be extremely difficult for Washington, and/or Moscow, to work as an intermediary and try and convince the SDF to sacrifice their offensive now, or even insist that they take Raqqa and then cede control over it to the Turks or Turkey's FSA proxies - especially in light of Ankara's frequent threats to force them out of Manbij.

However, on February 16, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said, for the Raqqa operation to be a success "then it should be carried out with Arab forces in the region and not the YPG". This is a possible hint that Turkey is willing to look the other way if the Manbij model were employed in Raqqa - a largely Arab-SDF force seizing the city, a strategy which already seems to be in play.

"The new US administration has a different approach to the issue," Isik added. "They are not insisting anymore that the operation should definitely be carried out with the YPG. They haven't yet made up their minds."

President Erdogan also said, during his Bahrain visit, that his troops would not stay in Syria after IS was defeated, suggesting the FSA could be part of a new national Syrian army - which implies he might have a plan to leave these forces as proxies to control areas Turkey captured from IS.

All of these scenarios are only really possible if the Turks can manage to send a sufficient number of ground forces to that area - Raqqa is more than 150km from al-Bab - in the next few months.

Given their struggling performance to take in al-Bab - a mere 30km from their own border - it is at this point in time questionable whether they will be capable of making it to Raqqa - particularly if the Syrian regime and Russia oppose them going that far into Syria, which they likely will.

That said, Turkey's commitment to its goal of containing the PYD/YPG in Syria should not be underestimated. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon