Two key towns for Turkey in Syria

Two key towns for Turkey in Syria

As the Turkish, U.S. and French defense ministers were meeting in Brussels on Oct. 26 for an assessment on the situation in Mosul and Iraq in general, Ankara was focused on helping the Free Syria Army (FSA) take control in towns that are key for its border security.
President Tayyip Erdoğan said on the same day in Ankara that Turkey was determined to clear Manbij from the forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a major threat for Turkey with its acts of terror. Manbij was taken from the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) earlier this year by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which mainly consists of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the PYD, with heavy air and special forces support from the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). In a telephone conversation in May between Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama, Turkey agreed to turn a blind eye to the U.S.’s supply of arms to the PYD in return for a promise that the PYD forces would later leave Manbij and retreat to the east of the Euphrates river. The aim was to prevent the PYD – which means the PKK for Turkey - from forming a zone of control along Turkey’s 910-km border with Syria.

When the Turkish government was sure that the Americans could not or would not take the PYD out of Manbij, despite numerous demands from Ankara, and after a deadly ISIL attack in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, Turkish forces entered Syria in support of the FSA. They took the border town of Jarablus from ISIL on the first day of the operation, Aug. 24, shortly before Turkey-supported Syrian opposition forces took the small, psychologically important town of Dabiq from ISIL. They ultimately secured control over an area 90 km in width and 20-25 km in depth. Turkish forces also hit PYD units in the western sector of this area after the latter attempted to move towards the town of al-Bab, around 45 km from the Turkish border.

Al-Bab is key for Turkey’s Syria outlook. The town is currently in ISIL’s hands, on the road between Manbij and Aleppo. The PYD/PKK does not want Turkish-backed forces to take al-Bab, as it would create a wedge between their regions of control, Afrin in western Syria and Kobane to the east of the Euphrates. The Americans do not favor the PYD taking al-Bab either. But they are actually not so interested in the west of Syria, because of the Russian-backed Syrian regime’s continued strong influence there. 

FSA control of al-Bab is key for Turkey keeping both ISIL and the PYD out of the reach of its border.

The other key town in Syria for Turkey is not Raqqa, which is a distant 120 km from the border, but Tel Abyad. Tel Abyad is just across the Turkish border town of Akçakale, which has been the target of many ISIL attacks before. Tel Abyad is currently in PYD control, but Turkish security sources believe this control is not stable. Ankara does not want Tel Abyad to be in hands of either ISIL or the PYD, as its location would provide an opportunity for either of them to infiltrate militants into Turkey. 

Turkey’s persistence on these two towns could soon become another problem between Ankara and Washington, due to the role of the PYD. This is one of the meanings behind the words of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşğolu on Oct. 24, when he said that if necessary Turkey “could take steps for its own protection in Syria and Iraq.” By that he was not only referring to the Mosul operation.