ISIL is a transient phenomenon, the Kurds are not

ISIL is a transient phenomenon, the Kurds are not

If a task turns out to be much easier than expected, this may be pleasing to those concerned, but it also raises uneasy questions in some minds and provides fodder for conspiracy theorists. Take Turkey’s military operation in Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

This operation, which also aims to prevent the Syrian Kurds operating under the banner of the People’s Democratic Union (PYD) from gaining more ground, has reportedly cleared the region along Turkey’s border with Syria from ISIL.

This is an achievement that the US must also be happy about since it has been seeking such an intervention by Turkey for some time. The ease with which the Turkish army and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) achieved this nevertheless has some in the West – especially those who can’t bear President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - jumping to obvious, if highly contentious conclusions.

David L. Phillips, the Director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University, is one such person. In recent article for the Huffington Post ( he questioned the ease with which the Turkish military and FSA liberated Jarablus after they launched their joint operation on Aug. 24. 

This is what he wrote:

“Turkish-backed Islamists never engaged ISIS (another acronym for ISIL) in the so-called battle for Jarablus. Before invading, Ankara made a deal with the Islamic State. Rather than resist, ISIS forces simply changed into FSA uniforms. Jarablus was ‘liberated’ from ISIS with barely a shot.”

Phillips believes Ankara’s real motive here is not to go after ISIL or other radical Islamic groups but to eradicate the PYD, which must be prevented because this group is allied with the US military. This is a claim that many in Washington no doubt also believe, and this could pose serious problems for Ankara.

The ease with which operation “Euphrates Shield” has advanced is also raising questions in Turkish minds, not necessarily of the kind raised by Phillips though, although there are many Turks who would also believe what he is saying. 

Their concern is that the initial success of this operation may only represent the calm before the storm. In other words the Turkish military is being drawn into a trap in order to land it in the quagmire that PYD lead Salih Muslim predicted, or “threatened” as many Turks argue.

The military statement on Tuesday indicating that ISIL attacked Turkish tanks in northern Syria, killing three soldiers and wounding a number of others, is worrying in this respect. The coming days will show if this was an isolated desperate act or the start of a new campaign.  

Whatever the case may turn out to be, it is clear that Turkey cannot achieve its aims in Syria on its own. It has to work closely with its allies, and with other powers that have a stake in that country.

Turkey’s “Operation Euphrates Shield” was clearly a military game changer in Syria that put Ankara “back in the game,” to use the current popular phrase. But it is also true that everyone is listening to Turkey with a degree of reserve because of lingering doubts about Turkey’s real motives. 

This may be one of the reasons why the US is still opposed to Ankara’s call for a no-fly zone in Syria over areas liberated from ISIL. Russia and Iran are also opposed to this. This example shows that not everything will go the way Turkey wants. 

Put another way, Turkey’s curbing of Syrian Kurdish aspirations by military means does not mean the Kurds are out of the picture politically. Russia, for example, is still insisting that the PYD must be part of any Syrian settlement, which is a positon the US could also support. 

Ankara has to remember the old adage that what is gained on the battlefield can be lost at the negotiation table. It has therefore to be more realistic about the Syrian Kurds, who now have powerful patrons. 

ISIL is a transient phenomenon, the Kurds are not...