Turkey and US, two allies locked about al-Bab
The nodus emerged at Manbij. On Aug. 12, the Kurds took the city, which is 35 kilometers from the Turkish border and just opposite Gaziantep’s Karkamış, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They began to march toward al-Bab, which is 50 kilometers to the west, in order to unite the Afrin and Kobane cantons. Exactly 12 days later, on Aug. 24, the Turks entered Syria unilaterally from Jarablus. The Americans did not expect it. Focusing on the Raqqa operation, Washington was calculating that the Kurds would unite the cantons first, then close the access of Raqqa, which is 130 kilometers east of Manbij, to the Turkish border and then would march toward Raqqa. This plan was broken because of the Jarablus operation. The United States did not support the Turks’ entry into Syria for this reason.
However, when the Turkish forces began to clash with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) four days after their entrance to Jarablus, America intervened and stopped Ankara. Then America set a new position in order to make a deal about a buffer zone, and make Turkey move toward the west rather than toward the territories which the YPG had taken hold of. In this way, the U.S. began to support the Euphrates Operation, which started at Jarablus, both from air and land.
The problem is that this plan did not work either because the Turks did not settle for the buffer zone, despite an agreement to reduce it to a maximum depth of 20 kilometers from the border after closing the 98 kilometers of the Jarablus-Azez line, which is under ISIL control. Turkey tried to create the same facts on the ground as Jarabulus by entering Dabiq, opposite Kilis, 20 km from the Turkish border. Turkey passed through Dabiq and began to advance toward al-Bab, which is geographically opposite Kilis’ Çobanbey village, 30 kilometers from the Turkish border.
In this way, Ankara and Washington have fallen into one of the sharpest disagreements among the two allied nations since 2011, when the civil war began in Syria. Four main reasons have played a role.
1) RAQQA: Since the beginning, the Pentagon had been working on a plan to surround the ISIL bastion of Raqqa simultaneously before the Mosul Operation started on Oct. 17. That is why the Americans were trying to persuade the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG is the main element, to advance toward the Arab-majority Raqqa. The agreement was made, according to which the Kurds were to bestow the Barack Obama administration a victory by taking Raqqa and surrendering it to local Arabs. In return, the Afrin and Kobane cantons were to be united. This merger would also contribute to the siege of Raqqa, because ISIL would also lose its access to the Turkish border. That is why Turkey entered Jarablus hastily on Aug. 24 even though it had yet to effectively get over the July 15 coup attempt in order to prevent the unification of the Kurdish cantons. However, the operation undertaken for this purpose also broke American’s plans for Raqqa.
2) COORDINATION: After Jarablus, the coordination between Turkey and the United States in the struggle against ISIL has become difficult. Even though the Americans are trying to manage as they did first in Jarablus and then in Dabiq, the Turks began to set their strategies in Syria by creating a de facto situation – not by talking to the Americans, but by notifying the Americans about what they will do. Coalition Spokesperson Col. John Dorrian responded to me in writing when I asked if Turkey had shared information so that there would be no dispute with the coalition in the air strikes in the region. “The Turkish Air Force notifies us of the area and time of their planned strikes. The notification includes the type of aircraft, but does not include the specific target,” he said.
3) US-YPG COOPERATION: The strategy Turkey pursued despite its U.S. ally has also adversely affected the cooperation between the U.S. and the YPG, because the Kurds, who started the Raqqa operation on Nov. 5 with the promises of the U.S. saw that the Turkish air strikes against the Kurds around al-Bab continued in spite of the assurances given by the U.S. When I asked if the anti-ISIL coalition had any communication channels with the Afrin Kurds advancing to al-Bab, Dorrian said: “The coalition has not actively worked with the Afrin Kurds in recent months. However, they are under the command of Gen. Mazlum since they are an SDF faction. Currently, we do not have direct communications with the Afrin Kurds.” But a senior U.S. military official told AFP during the week that Kurdish forces had slowed their advance toward Raqqa because they were worried Turks would attack them. “Their [Kurds’] biggest concern is the Turks behind them are threatening to attack them and that’s what caused them to hesitate to move forward.”
4) COMMON ENEMY: In the end, the difference of opinion has brought the issue of the “common enemy” which Turkey and the U.S. have not been able to agree on Syria since summer 2014 back to the table. Is it ISIL, Bashar al-Assad or the YPG?
The White House carried the tension to a higher level during the week after the US’ cooperation with local partners on the Raqqa siege and coordination was harmed because of these differences. President Obama exempted Syria’s special force operations from “laws prohibiting the transfer of money and arms to countries that support terrorism.” And in Decision 201705 on Dec. 8, he also lifted the legal barriers to arms assistance to the YPG.