Turkey military operation much larger than anticipated: Analysts

Tactic is to advance into Arab-majority areas and drive a wedge between YPG-controlled territory, observers say.

Arab and Kurdish civilians flee following Turkish bombardment in Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

Arab and Kurdish civilians flee following Turkish bombardment in Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

 

The long-awaited operation launched by Turkey into northeastern Syria extended far beyond what was initially expected by military observers who predicted Ankara would likely embark on limited action.

In the first hours of Operation Peace Spring, Turkish air raids across the border reached as far as Qamishli in the east and further west of Kobane.

Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based Middle East analyst, told Al Jazeera the scale of the attack surprised many analysts.

“They’ve already hit 300km length and 50km depth, almost all major cities are hit,” Civiroglu said.

Soner Cagaptay, Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s research programme director, told Al Jazeera Turkey’s assault at this point was focused on Arab-majority towns.

“I think that’s quite a smart choice for Ankara because of the fact that Turkish troops will be more welcome in Arab-majority areas, given how friendly Turkey has been towards the Arab population,” Cagaptay said.

He said Turkey will continue to drive a wedge between Kurdish-controlled territory as a strategy to undermine the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and weaken the political authority that controls the border region with Turkey.

The SDF is spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has operated inside Turkey for decades. The PKK has been branded a “terrorist” organisation by Turkey and several other countries.

Wednesday’s cross-border operation was not the first. Last year, Turkey launched a similar offensive dubbed Operation Olive Branch into Syria’s Afrin town to “clear the area of terrorists”.

The SDF, while not wanting to comment on specifics, told Al Jazeera it was reviewing Turkish military strategy during Olive Branch to map out a response to the current operation.

According to local activists on the ground, the number one target for Turkey is the Arab-majority town of Tal Abyad, where Ankara hopes to quickly establish a ground presence.

Turkish security analyst and former special forces soldier Necdet Ozcelik told Al Jazeera he expects the first phase of Turkey’s operation will only last about 10 days, or a couple of weeks maximum, with the goal to take control of the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

The offensive will also involve thousands of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels providing ground support for Turkish commandos and its regular soldiers.

‘Under pressure’

Civiroglu said two scenarios were likely to unfold: Turkey intensifying ground operations, or the operation being halted because of condemnation from the international community.

“Trump is under pressure, the Turkish government is under pressure, the UN Security Council will meet today … The world is not buying arguments of the Turkish government,” he said.

“The SDF always wanted good relations [with Turkey] … Kurdish sympathy is very strong, that’s why there’s strong diplomatic efforts to put an end to this.”

The possibility remains that Syrian government forces of President Bashar al-Assad may try to capture the main city of Manbij, if the United States decides to withdraw its troops from there without giving early warning to the Turks.

“In this case, the Syrian army may try to capture Manbij before the Turkish forces or the FSA,” Ozcelik said.

“We might be seeing some sort of tension, or maybe limited confrontation, between the FSA elements and the Assad regime forces in Manbij area, but not in the eastern part.”

‘Turkish aggression’

The SDF responded to Turkey’s military action with artillery attacks and rockets fired into Turkish territory.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter the Kurdish fighters would not allow Turkish troops to advance further. “We will use all our possibilities against Turkish aggression,” he said.

Heavy fighting was taking place in Syrian border villages between advancing Turkish forces and SDF soldiers on Thursday.

Ozcelik said the Kurds were no match for the advancing Turkish-led forces.

“The YPG elements are composed of a lot of PKK ideology people, and they forcibly recruited many people who did not have serious military experience,” he said. “I’m expecting a lot of defections from the YPG side, so the Turkish military is going to take advantage of that.”

Robert Wesley of the Terrorism Research Initiative told Al Jazeera that Turkey will also suffer setbacks considering how vast the area is that it wants to control.

“It will require huge amounts of direct military engagement from the Turkish side,” Wesley said.

“The use of the FSA, that will also be limited [because] these groups are not really well-trained. They don’t have a strong track record with more sophisticated defences.”

Turkey may not have the appetite for sustaining significant casualties, Wesley said, which a serious military encounter with the SDF would necessitate.

“I don’t think either side is particularly well prepared for the engagement,” he said.

The biggest challenge for the SDF is not having a weapon system that can counter Turkish air attacks, Civiroglu said.

“[Even so] they have said they will defend themselves until the end,” he noted.

Russian reaction

Russian President Vladimir Putin phoned Ankara after the Turkish operation began to stress that Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity be respected.

The Kremlin said it would not interfere further in Syria after years of supporting Assad’s forces against rebel groups, but cautioned Turkey not to take any steps that would destabilise the region.

Cagaptay said Moscow has no choice but to back Turkey’s move. “The most Russia will do is to voice support behind closed doors, even though they may publicly criticise the operation,” he said.

He said the Kremlin may even be welcoming Ankara’s military action. 

“The [Syrian] regime and Russia consider Turkey a threat, so by provoking Turkey to attack Kurds really Russia is hitting two birds with one,” Cagaptay said. “Hitting Kurds, trying to make Kurds dependent on Russia, at the same time allow Turkey to suppress the Kurds, not allow them to make gains.”

Even if Turkey is successful in securing its so-called “safe-zone” to return about two million Syrian refugees, there will be major challenges ahead, observers said.

The complex issue of containing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) fighters who are still active in the region must be addressed by Turkey.

As seen by the suicide attack claimed by the armed group in Raqqa on an SDF intelligence base, killing 13 people, ISIL may be defeated militarily but sleeper cells are still prevalent.

“It’s unfamiliar territory for Turkey,” Civiroglu said. “It’s Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Christians, and Yazidis of the region [who] fought these people.”

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/turkey-military-operation-larger-anticipated-analysts-191010054605380.html

‘A bloody conflict’: Trump’s actions in Syria will have long-term consequences

Kurds call it a stab in the back: chaos to come will have many participants

ISIL-claimed suicide attack in Syria kills 18, including 4 U.S. troops

A suicide attack killed four U.S. personnel in northern Syria Wednesday, costing Washington its worst combat losses in the war-torn country since 2014 as it prepares to withdraw. Nine Syrian civilians and five U.S.-backed fighters were also killed in the attack.

The bombing, claimed by the Islamic State (ISIL) group, comes after U.S. President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month that he was ordering a full troop withdrawal from Syria because the jihadists had been “largely defeated”.

The Pentagon said, “Two U.S. servicemembers, one Department of Defense (DoD) civilian and one contractor supporting DoD were killed and three servicemembers were injured while conducting a local engagement in Manbij.”

“Initial reports indicate an explosion caused the casualties, and the incident is under investigation,” it said, adding that the names of the dead were being withheld until 24 hours after their families were informed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said two Americans soldiers, nine Syrian civilians, and five U.S.-backed fighters were killed in the attack on a restaurant in the northern city of Manbij near the Turkish border.

Rubble littered the outside of the eatery in the city center and its facade was blackened by the blast, footage from a Kurdish news agency showed.

According to Pentagon statistics, Wednesday’s blast was the deadliest attack for U.S. anti-ISIL forces in Syria since they deployed in 2014.

The U.S. Department of Defense has previously only reported two American personnel killed in combat in Syria, in separate incidents.

The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria, said it was the first suicide attack in the city in 10 months.

‘Security zone’

This image grab taken from a video published by Hawar News Agency (ANHA) shows the scene of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, January 16, 2019. /VCG Photo

Addressing a gathering of U.S. ambassadors in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence did not comment on the attack, saying only that the United States would ensure the defeat of IS, also known as ISIL.

“We’ll stay in the region and we’ll stay in the fight to ensure that ISIL does not rear its ugly head again,” he said.

The bombing comes as Syrian Kurds present in areas around Manbij rejected any Turkish presence in a planned “safe zone” to include Kurdish-held areas along the frontier.

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies, who Ankara views as “terrorists” on its southern flank.

Washington, which has relied heavily on the Kurds in its campaign against IS in Syria, has sought guarantees for their safety since Trump’s pullout announcement.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would set up a “security zone” in northern Syria following a suggestion by Trump.

But senior Syrian Kurdish political leader Aldar Khalil said any Turkish deployment in Kurdish-held areas was “unacceptable”.

He said the Kurds would accept the deployment of UN forces along a separation line between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops.

But “other choices are unacceptable as they infringe on the sovereignty of Syria and the sovereignty of our autonomous region,” Khalil told AFP.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIL.

They have taken heavy losses in a campaign now nearing its conclusion, with the jihadists confined to an ever-shrinking enclave of just 15 square kilometers (under six square miles).

But the jihadists have continued to claim attacks nationwide and abroad.

Ankara has welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal of some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, but the future of Kurdish fighters has poisoned relations between the NATO allies.

On Monday, Erdogan and Trump had a telephone conversation to ease tensions after the U.S. leader threatened to “devastate” Turkey’s economy if Ankara attacked Kurdish forces in Syria, and called for a “safe zone”.

No ‘outside interference’

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters participating in a training maneuver, near the town of Tal Hajar in Syria’s Aleppo province, January 16, 2019. /VCG Photo

Erdogan said he and Trump had a “quite positive” conversation in which they spoke of “a 20-mile (30 kilometers) security zone along the Syrian border… set up by us”.

The YPG-led forces fighting IS in a statement said they would provide “necessary support to set up the safe zone” – if it came with international guarantees to “prevent any outside interference”, in an apparent reference to Turkey.

The Turkish army has launched two major operations in Syria in recent years.

In the latest, Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies seized the northwestern enclave of Afrin from the Kurds last year.

Critics have accused Turkish troops and their proxies of military occupation and abuses in Syrian sovereign territory.

But while Ankara has spoken of a YPG-free “security zone” under its control, analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said it was not immediately clear what the U.S. president meant by a “safe zone”, or who he thought would patrol it.

Analysts were “waiting for a clarification from Washington to see what the president really meant”, he told AFP.

The U.S. planned withdrawal has sent the Kurds scrambling to seek a new ally in Damascus, which has long rejected Kurdish self-rule.

With military backing from Russia since 2015, Syria’s regime has advanced against jihadists and rebels, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.

A northwestern enclave held by jihadists and pockets held by Turkish troops and their allies remain beyond its reach, along with the much larger Kurdish region.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian government must take control of the north.

(Cover: An image grab taken from a video obtained by AFPTV shows US troops gathered at the scene of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, January 16, 2019. /VCG Photo)

Trump says he discussed ‘highly coordinated’ Syria pullout with Erdogan

French President Emmanuel Macron says, “I deeply regret the decision” by Trump to pull troops from Syria
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, with US President Donald Trump at G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 1 December (AFP)

 

Donald Trump said on Sunday he had discussed Syria and “the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area” in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The US president tweeted that the two leaders had “a long and productive call,” and also discussed the Islamic State (IS) group and “heavily expanded trade,” AFP reported.

Trump shocked US allies on Friday when he announced plans to pull the 2,000 US troops out of Syria, where they have been helping coordinate a multinational fight against IS. On Sunday, a US military spokesperson said the order for their withdrawal had been signed, without providing further details.

French President Emmanuel Macron criticised Trump’s decision, saying “an ally must be reliable”. In a sign of the growing diplomatic rift between the two leaders, Macron said: “I deeply regret the decision” by Trump to pull out US troops.

Still, the move was lauded by Turkey.

The decision followed an earlier Trump phone call with Erdogan, who has been pressing for a US withdrawal.

The Turkish presidency said in a statement: “The two leaders agreed to ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria.”

Erdogan had said on Friday that Turkey would take over the fight against IS in Syria as the US withdraws.

An American pullout would also allow Turkish troops to move against the hardened Kurdish fighters in Syria deemed terrorists by the Ankara government – but who have strongly supported US efforts there.

A US withdrawal, said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst, “will open way for Turkey to start its operations against the Kurds, and a bloody war will begin”.

Trump’s sudden decision sparked turmoil in his administration, prompting the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, to be effective on 28 February, as well as of Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the anti-IS coalition.

In announcing his resignation, Mattis distributed a candid resignation letter addressed to Trump that laid bare the growing divide between them, and implicitly criticized Trump for failing to value America’s closest allies, who fought alongside the United States in both conflicts. Mattis said that Trump deserved to have a defense secretary more aligned with his views, Reuters reported.

Trump on Sunday said he would be replacing Mattis two months earlier than specified in his resignation, a move officials said was driven by Trump’s anger at Mattis’s resignation letter and its rebuke of his foreign policy, Reuters reported.

Several US politicians of both parties rejected Trump’s claim that the forces of IS had been defeated, and many in the US military expressed alarm and dismay at the thought of suddenly abandoning their Kurdish allies.

Criticism continued on Sunday television news shows, according to the Wall Street Journal:

“I am deeply, deeply concerned and I oppose strongly the president’s decision apparently to withdraw troops from Syria,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, said on CBS, also mentioning Trump’s plans to remove about half the US troops in Afghanistan.

“These two decisions would be disastrous,” Cheney said. “They would really, in many ways, hand the victories to our enemies to Iran, to ISIS in Syria, the Taliban, al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

Incoming White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney countered on Fox News that the president had long made his intentions clear. “We recognize the fact that this is unpopular within the beltway,” he said. “We recognize this fact it’s unpopular within the Defense Department. It’s very popular with ordinary American people.”

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/trump-says-he-discussed-highly-coordinated-syria-pullout-erdogan

 

Winners and Losers in Trump’s Planned Troop Withdrawal From Syria

Kurdish residents of Amuda in northeastern Syria. One holds a flag of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party.
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

President Trump’s decision this week to withdraw all American troops from Syria within 30 days risks leaving United States’ allies in the long-running war weakened while strengthening rivals backed by Iran and Russia.

American troops entered Syria in 2015 as part of a coalition fighting the Islamic State, which had seized large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. In the three years since, the extremist group’s self-declared caliphate has crumbled. But the continuing lack of stability in both Syria and Iraq could provide fertile ground for the jihadists to retrench.

The American pullout could also weaken the country’s influence over any negotiations on a settlement to end the conflict.

“The leverage that might have been there for the United States in Syria is no longer there because now everyone knows that the United States will leave Syria unconditionally,” said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, a conflict and foreign policy research organization.

Here are some of the parties to the conflict that have the most to gain or lose from an American withdrawal.

President Bashar al-Assad and his chief international backers, Russia and Iran, would all benefit from an American troop withdrawal, which would further tighten Mr. Assad’s once-tenuous grip on his battered country.

Iran is one of the biggest winners as the international ally with the most invested in Syria and the most at stake. During the war, Iran embedded itself in Syria, redrawing the strategic map of the Middle East.

It has sent in thousands of Shiite forces, who fought on the ground, and deployed drones and precision weapons to keep Mr. Assad in power. That secured an all-important land bridge through Syria to supply weapons to Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite militia ally in Lebanon and a steadfast enemy of Israel.

Iran trained and equipped Shiite fighters while strengthening ties with allies in Iraq and Lebanon in hopes of building a united front in the event of a new war with Israel.

Russia also stands to benefit. A day after Mr. Trump’s announcement on Wednesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia applauded the decision, saying during a news conference, “Donald’s right, and I agree with him.”

Credit…Alexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Russia contributed around 5,000 troops and a few dozen aircraft to prop up Mr. Assad’s government, which secured Moscow’s strategically important naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea. Russia also expanded its military footprint in Syria during the war.

“It certainly helps the Russians, who have benefited tremendously from a quite limited investment in Syria,” said Jon B. Alterman, director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Through its alliance with Syria, Russia has maintained its influence in the Middle East.

“They re-established themselves as a global player when the conclusion had been that the glory days of the Soviet Union were dead and gone,” Mr. Alterman said.

For Mr. Assad, the American withdrawal means the path forward for Syria will be shaped largely by forces sympathetic to his government and its interests.

The two biggest threats to his leadership have been substantially neutralized — the myriad rebel groups that tried to overthrow the Syrian government and the Islamic State — the latter thanks largely to the military force brought to bear by the American-led international coalition that fought the militants.

Turkey and the United States, NATO allies, have frequently found themselves at odds in Syria, even though both opposed Mr. Assad. That is because the United States backed a mostly Kurdish force in Syria, saying they were the fighters most capable of pushing back the Islamic State.

Turkey has long battled Kurdish separatists at home in the country’s southeast and saw the rising power of Kurds along its border in northern Syria as a threat. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey recently threatened military intervention against the Kurdish forces in Syria that Washington has backed since 2015.

The exit of American troops would leave Turkey open to taking action to curb the power of Kurdish forces in Syria.

Credit…Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We have won against ISIS,” Mr. Trump declared in a video that was published on Wednesday. But experts, including some of Mr. Trump’s own staff and coalition partners, disagree.

Though the militants retain just 1 percent of the territory they held at the height of power, this would remove a major military adversary in the region. During a State Department briefing on Dec. 11, Brett McGurk, Mr. Trump’s special envoy in the fight against the Islamic State, said the battle was not over.

“The end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative,” Mr. McGurk said. “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished.”

Despite being America’s key allies in the fight against the Islamic State, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are being virtually abandoned, critics of the withdrawal say. The Kurds have relied on American support, and a sudden withdrawal could be disastrous, leaving them exposed from all sides.

The Syrian Democratic Forces denounced the withdrawal in a statement on Thursday.

“The White House’s decision to withdraw from northern and eastern Syria will negatively affect the campaign against terrorism,” the group said. “The fight against terrorism is not over yet, and the final defeat of terrorism has not come yet.”

The group warned that the move would create a “political-military vacuum” that would allow the Islamic State to thrive again.

Kurdish forces are likely to lose territory and control as a result of Mr. Trump’s decision.

“Kurds and their allies have paid a very heavy price,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based Kurdish affairs analyst. “They have fought on the front line, and thousands of Kurdish men and women lost their lives fighting on behalf of the entire world.”

He said many now feel betrayed: “They feel like all the efforts are about to go in vain.”

Kurdish fighters who have battled the Islamic State in Syria.
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

As the Kurds — a stateless and often marginalized group — took back territory from Islamic State forces in northern Syria, they worked to created an autonomous region.

A newly empowered Iran with unfettered land access to their Hezbollah allies — without American forces in the north of Syria as a counterweight — poses an existential threat to Israel.

“Israel will be very unhappy about this because they see it as a net gain for Iran, and they are right,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

As Israel’s most powerful ally, the United States plays an outsize role in security for the country, and the withdrawal of troops could threaten that balance.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict in Syria for years, with millions displaced from their homes and millions more who fled the country struggling abroad as refugees.

Aid groups warn that further destabilization of northern Syrian could spark yet another humanitarian disaster in the region.

A paramedic carried an injured child after Syrian and Russian forces struck the rebel-held town of Hamouria.
Credit…Abdulmonam Eassa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The International Rescue Committee, which has been working to provide humanitarian assistance in parts of Syria for years, warned that a potential Turkish offensive in the region could be devastating.

“Throughout this conflict, these political and military decisions have been made without any apparent consideration of the humanitarian consequences. As a result, every decision has heightened the danger and distress for civilians,” said David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee.

Many Kurdish civilians would likely flee the area if the Kurdish militias lose control of northern Syria.

“There will be a humanitarian crisis, there is no question,” Mr. Hiltermann said.

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