The risk of Turkish and American soldiers fighting
In the White House readout on Jan. 24, there was an important sentence regarding United States President Donald Trump’s telephone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish presidential sources have not denied that sentence.
The sentence was: “He [Trump] urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
Shortly before Trump arrived in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum on Jan. 25, his Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert repeated those words in a rather straightforward manner. Bossert said it would be “a terrible outcome if Turkish troops clashed with the proxy forces that we have all been relying on to defeat ISIS, especially if there are U.S. advisers in the region.”
The “proxy forces” referred to by Bossert are the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the U.S. Central Command uses as ground troops to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) despite objections from its NATO ally Turkey. Ankara has objected to fighting one terrorist organization, ISIL, with the help of another, the YPG, not least because it sees the YPG as having links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S has designated as a terrorist organization.
With those words, Trump’s security adviser acknowledged the PKK as the U.S.’s “proxy forces.” Last year, Special Forces Commander Raymond Thomas had already openly admitted to asking the YPG to “change its brand.” So the YPG became the SDF. Furthermore, former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter affirmed that the YPG and PKK were organically linked before a Senate panel at the U.S. Congress.
Bossert’s aggressive statement contradicts the most hardline supporter of U.S. collaboration with the YPG, Brett McGurk, who is the president’s special envoy for the anti-ISIL coalition. Following the POTUS readout, McGurk said on Twitter that the “Afrin situation developed as we were leaving. The U.S. is now engaged intensively to urge restraint and de-escalation. We are prepared to work with Turkey on legitimate security concerns, but prolonged operation risks giving life to ISIS as its on verge of defeat.” Shortly before that statement he had said there was “still significant fighting in this eastern border region. Probably 2-3 months of major ops left before shifting to stabilization and internal security.”
The U.S. declines to consider clashes between Turkish forces and the YPG in Afrin as a fight between Turkey and the U.S. But the White House readout suggests a greater risk of a Turkish operation in Manbij. Manbij is a town on the west bank of the river Euphrates taken from ISIL and held by the YPG, despite American promises that the YPG would return the settlement to its Arab inhabitants and withdraw from the eastern banks of the river.
There is currently no sign of a Turkish operation on Manbij. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım recently said the focus is currently on Afrin and Ankara is still “waiting for the Americans to fulfill their promises” to hand over Manbij to its Arab inhabitants.
The risk of an American soldier or adviser being killed by a Turkish bullet would be as serious as a Turkish soldier being killed by an American bullet. Actually, the U.S. proxy is already killing Turkish soldiers and civilians, so Bossert must elaborate on what those “grave consequences” could be. Could the U.S. administration go as far as to declare Turkey an “enemy” and attack it in order to protect an organization that it has itself designated as a terrorist group? Really?