How will Turkey fight against ISIL?
Hürriyet Daily News readers will surely remember the very interesting conversation between United States President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Dec. 14 which led the former to order the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
Trump had asked Erdoğan over the phone: Can Turkey clear the east of Euphrates from the rest of ISIL in the event of our withdrawal from Syria?
ISIL, the acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is one of the bloodiest jihadist terror organizations which had stormed both Iraq and Syria and carried out a number of cruel terror acts in Western countries. ISIL has started to lose influence and territories after dozens of countries, under the leadership of the U.S., launched a global campaign against it.
Erdoğan had assured the U.S. president that Turkey can perfectly eliminate all terrorists in the east of Syria as it did in mid-2016 through Operation Euphrates Shield. The Turkish president recalled that Turkey had neutralized around 4,000 jihadist terrorists at that time and that the U.S. never needed the YPG’s assistance.
This strong commitment by Erdoğan pushed Trump to firmly order the withdrawal of the U.S. troops in a statement he made on Dec. 19. He later announced on Dec. 23 that “Erdoğan has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIL in Syria” on his Twitter account.
Thus, Turkey is now entrusted with the task of wiping ISIL remnants out from the east of Syria. Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who is the former chief of General Staff, confirmed this new task of the Turkish army. In a statement on Jan. 1, he said, “The Turkish Armed Forces have now taken a task and the responsibility in the fight against Daesh as a result of a conversation between our president and Mr. Trump. We will efficiently fulfill this duty in the coming days,” using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.
There is no discussion over Turkey’s determination in fighting against ISIL, but the question is how it will be held. It’s believed that ISIL has a few thousand armed terrorists still controlling a small piece of territory around Abu Kamal province in southeastern Syria along the Iraqi border.
Clearing this area from ISIL would surely require ground and air operations. If Turkey is to do this, it has to deploy thousands of troops and requires military equipment into an area around 400 kilometers away from the Turkish border. It has also been clarified by the Russians that its aircrafts will not be intercepted by the Syrian air defense system. Plus, all relevant actors should assure Turkey that neither the YPG nor the Syrian army will be on its way to Abu Kamal.
Another problem is where to deploy all these Turkish military personnel and their equipment? An option would be Turkey’s use of the bases and facilities to be evacuated by the U.S. army in the east of Syria. Russia and Syria would never see this happening, of course, as it will look like Turkey’s military penetration into the said area.
Plus, Turkey has already announced that any operation it would hold in Syria will be tasked to eliminate all terrorists, including the YPG. Any incursion to this end will create more problems than solutions and will not be endorsed by any actor in the region, including the U.S.
One other option would be to let Iraq engage in the fight against ISIL. The territories being controlled by ISIL are very close to the Iraqi border and Trump hinted that the U.S. struggle against the jihadist groups may be well conducted by the existing American military presence in that country. It would be no surprise if Erdoğan and Iraqi President Barham Salih also discussed the need to fully eradicate ISIL in the region during the latter’s visit to Ankara in the coming days.
Given the complexity of the matter, Turkey will surely continue its close coordination with all relevant parties, mostly the U.S. and Russia, on how to secure its potential fight against ISIL. Trump’s latest decision to give another four months for a slow and orderly withdrawal from Syria provides necessary time for these countries to engage in both political and military talks.
In short, the Turkish military, which has been quite busy with consequent cross-border operations into Syria in the two years, is now taking on a new and serious responsibility. Only time will show what consequences this engagement would bring about.