Analysis: Erdogan is on a crash course with the US

The offensive against the Kurds in Syria is a red line. Experts say the latest Turkish provocation is bringing a confrontation closer.

Yochanan Visser ,

Trump and Erdogan
Trump and Erdogan

Yochanan Visser is an independent journalist/analyst who worked for many years as Middle East correspondent for Western in Arizona and was a frequent publicist for the main Dutch paper De Volkskrant. He authored a book in the Dutch language about the cognitive war against Israel and now lives in Gush Etzion. He writes a twice weekly analysis of current issues for Arutz Sheva

Last weekend,Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after years of threats, finally ordered his military and its allies among the Islamist rebel groups in northwestern Syria to attack the Kurdish Afrin enclave along the border with Turkey.

The ground and air attack on the Kurdish YPG militia received the code name “Olive Branch” by the Turkish army. The regime in Ankara claimed the cross-border attack was aimed at routing out “terrorists” - meaning the U.S.-allied Kurdish YPG militia which forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Islamic State.

The latter has no presence in Afrin, while Turkey, via its intelligence service MIT, for a long time aided ISIS and the former Al-Qaeda branch Jabhat al-Nusra, which first changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and after a merger with other Islamist groups became Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham.

Ankara announced it intended to create a 30 kilometer wide buffer zone in Afrin. Erdogan coordinated his moves with Russian President Vladimir Putin who enabled the Turkish air force to bomb YPG positions in the Kurdish canton and pulled Russian forces out of Afrin ahead of the offensive.

Erdogan used an American plan to create a 30,000 men strong border security force in the other two Kurdish cantons along the Syrian Turkish border as the pretext for the attack on the Syrian Kurds in Afrin and said he would “strangle” the new force before it was even born.

The hot-headed Turkish leader also warned the U.S. it was aiding the Kurdish-led SDF in forming a new “terror army.” He announced he would widen operation “Olive Branch” to the town of Manbij which was liberated from ISIS-rule by the SDF in August 2016.

Manbij, however, is located north of Aleppo and lies between Afrin and the Kurdish autonomous Euphrates region. It is home to a regiment of U.S. soldiers who are advising the SDF and assist in transforming the most effective fighting force against Islamic State into a border security force.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently made clear the United States would maintain a force of several thousand soldiers in the two southern parts of what the Kurds call Rojava, the democratic federation of Kurdish cantons in Syria.

Speaking at Stanford University Tillerson said “it is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict, and assist the Syrian people . . . to achieve a new political future.”

Tillerson’s remarks signaled that the Trump Administration had finally formulated a coherent strategy to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and other Jihadist rebel groups such as Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham. At the same time, these moves are meant to do something against the Iranian imperialistic aspirations in Syria.

The Secretary of State said pulling out U.S. troops from Syria at this point would constitute a repetition of the mistake in 2011, when former president Obama decided to leave Iraq in order to allow American soldiers to celebrate Christmas and New Year with their families.

The premature Iraqi pull-out allowed Al Qaeda to survive and “to morph into ISIS,” Tillerson argued while he also made clear the Trump Administration’s preferred solution to the Syrian war remained the U.N. peace initiative, That initiative envisions democratic elections in the devastated country and the removal of the Assad regime.

The rebirth of Al Qaeda in Iraq eventually resulted in the rise of Islamic State and forced a return of the United States to Iraq where it cobbled together a 69-nation-strong coalition.At the end of 2017 they finally crushed the ISIS caliphate.

The new U.S. strategy for Syria triggered a sharp response by the Iranian-Russian backed pro-Assad coalition of which Turkey became a de-facto member in 2017.

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad charged continued U.S. presence in Syria was illegal under international law while Erdogan decided to confront the U.S. with military power by invading Afrin and promised a decisive victory within a short period of time.

Erdogan, however, might have overplayed his hand by invading Syria for a second time and by challenging NATO ally the United States.

First of all, the Kurds have had all the time to prepare for a confrontation with the Turkish army and they form a very motivated and battle-hardened force after successfully crushing Islamic State’s self-declared Caliphate last year.

According to Kurdish and Russian media, the YPG has already captured 16 Turkish soldiers and destroyed 5 German Leopard tanks of Erdogan’s army, which is a shadow of its former self since Erdogan’s purge after the botched coup against his regime in the summer of 2016.

The continuing purge has put one in four pilots of the Turkish air force behind bars, for example, and has bereft the Turkish army of a significant part of its top-brass.

Secondly, president Trump finally appears to realize he must act to stop Erdogan’s aggression against the Kurds in Syria.

During a telephone conversation with Erdogan this week, Trump told the Turkish dictator he was undercutting “the shared goals” in Syria and demanded Turkey limit its military actions in Syria.

The president also warned Erdogan to “exercise caution” and “avoid any action that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces,” while expressing concerns about the “destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey.”

The Erdogan regime shot back by accusing the White House of distributing “fake news” about Erdogan’s telephone conversation with Trump and on Thursday openly provoked the U.S. by launching airstrikes on Manbij.

The new provocative move by the Turkish dictator means a confrontation between the two NATO allies in Syria has now become closer according to experts.

"The United States wants to have its cake and to eat it too. It wants to continue to work with Syrian Kurds in eastern Syria as a core part of building stability post-ISIS, but it also wants to keep Turkey as a close NATO ally and it's become increasingly difficult for the United States to do both," according to Nick Heras, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security.

Others, like freelance Middle East reporter Michael Totten, say Erdogan’s policies in the Middle East should result in a re-evaluation of Turkey’s NATO membership or in kicking Turkey out of NATO.

NATO, however, still regards Turkey as an asset and only looks to the war on ISIS as a way to defend Erdogan’s aggression to the Kurds.

“In this neighborhood, NATO recognizes that you face a number of difficult security challenges. Among all NATO Allies, Turkey is the most exposed to instability and turmoil stemming from the Middle East,” NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller told a crowd in Istanbul this week.

“Your country has suffered a series of brutal terrorist attacks. I want you to know that NATO stands in solidarity with Turkey in the fight against terrorism,” Gottemoeller added.

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