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article imageOp-Ed: Turkey enters Syria as US dithers, risk of new major war

By Paul Wallis     Oct 9, 2019 in World
Ankara - Turkey’s decision to move into Syria and fight US-backed Kurdish forces has a lot of ramifications, none of them good for regional peace.
The fight between Turkey and the Kurds has been going on since World War 1, and this time it can affect the entire region.
Turkish airstrikes preceded the movement of troops into a part of Syria currently controlled by the Kurds. A few deaths have been reported, but the situation on the ground is vague, and information patchy. This area was liberated from Islamic State by the Kurds, with US and allied support.
Northern Syria is pretty much central to the overall Kurdish frontline positions covering northern Syria and northern Iraq. Northern Iraq is an almost entirely autonomous Kurdish region, dominated by the Kurdish forces. Kurdish forces also have a region of deep control south of these positions, extending across much of the Syria-Iraq border to the east.
Turkish forces include artillery and mechanised troops as well as air power, and the region’s population (which was trying to rebuild after eight years of war) seems to have been caught largely by surprise. It’s unclear what options these civilians have for escape from the fighting.
A small number of US forces totalling about 150 soldiers were removed from the affected areas in the last week as part of the Trump administration’s plan to exit Syria. This move has been variously seen as giving the Turks the OK to invade Syria, a betrayal of the highly effective Kurdish US allies, and a recipe for destabilization of the entire region.
Political and diplomatic mess in progress
Turkey is a US ally, a NATO member, and until recently, one of the more moderate Islamic nations involved in the war against Islamic State. The Trump administration has been less than effective in dissuading Turkey from invasion. Trump has threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it went “off limits” in one of his invaluable Tweeting tirades, but details are lacking. These threats have obviously had no impact on Turkish decision-making.
Meanwhile, Republicans have widely criticized Trump’s exit strategy as the betrayal of their Kurdish allies, with considerable reason. The Kurds took on a huge part of the fighting against Islamic State clear across the entire front from Mosul to the Syrian northern regions.
The problem is that the criticism is all too clearly justified. The US is well aware of the situation between the Kurds and Turkey, which is highly volatile. Turkey and the Kurds have been fighting a murderous war against each other, starting when the foundation of an independent Kurdish state failed to eventuate after World War 1. Fighting, truces, and even occasional periods of peace haven’t resolved any of the issues. Turkish President Erdogan is an anti-Kurdish hardliner, and the situation has deteriorated significantly since he came to power.
The Trump administration’s habit of on/off statements doesn’t help. A simplistic approach to an anything but simple situation will make things worse. How, exactly, will the US attack the economy of a NATO ally? What will be the results? Will Russia step in to help the Turks? Will Turkey become a Russian ally, bringing a lot of NATO hardware with it?
Military mess incoming
The Turkish military is large, pretty well-equipped, and generally considered competent. With about 735,000 troops, it has the capacity to project power around its borders effectively. They have a lot of artillery, armoured fighting vehicles, helicopters, and tanks.
The Kurdish forces are lightly equipped, but highly agile, very experienced, and fully familiar with the areas under attack. They are currently in positions resulting from the Islamic State war. These are not necessarily the positions they’d take for managing a Turkish invasion, nor essential for the Kurds tactically in such a fight.
This is where the obvious military problems start. The Kurdish forces simply don’t have to fight the Turks on Turkish terms anywhere in the region. They can fight a very efficient guerrilla war, even against Islamic State, and they are well-known to Western militaries as highly effective fighters. They have room to move, and the capacity to defend and attack. The Turkish forces are big, but that also means massive logistic demands, particularly over a long-term war.
Turkey hasn’t stated a clear series of military objectives, at least not publicly, beyond creating a “buffer zone” against the Kurds. That suggests long-term occupation of Syrian and quite likely Iraqi territories. The war against the Kurds is a sort of article of faith for Turkey’s hardliners, and that alone seems to be the primary driving force behind this invasion.
Turkish forces and Syrian opposition forces were previously in position on the Turkish-Syrian border. The alignment of Turkey with Assad’s opponents doesn’t add much to the relations between the two nations, and may have some grim consequences if the Syrian and Turkish forces clash.
The military problems don’t end there. If the Kurds, who are still fighting remnants of Islamic State, reposition to fight the Turks, it’s a let-off for Islamic State, which could re-emerge as a serious force given time. That would mean that another Islamic State war could erupt.
In effect, the possible outcome of the Turkish moves could be to re-ignite a four-sided war across northern Syria. This would inevitably be a protracted war, perhaps as long as the Syrian war has been so far.
Boots in the mouth?
The theory of creating a buffer zone and the practice of administering it for years with large numbers of troops isn’t likely to be easy, and will be costly in both lives and money. Turkey is proposing to take over a very large area of tough country, and hold it against the Kurds. In the past, the Turkish border has been very porous, with Kurds coming and going pretty easily.
There’s a large Kurdish population in Turkey, too, which may respond to the invasion by supporting Kurdish forces and active attacks inside Turkey. So the security situation is hardly likely to improve, and added pressure on Turkish resources will be considerable if an all-out Turkish-Kurdish war ensues.
If there’s one thing that Middle Eastern wars over the last 90 years have proven beyond doubt, it’s that any statement by any participant can become a foot-in-mouth exercise very quickly. If those feet are wearing boots, conversation is almost impossible.
The Turkish/Syrian/Kurdish/Islamic State/ Syrian opposition situation needs ideas, not talk. The Turkish invasion has basically taken all prior peace options off the table. Syria is condemned to more years of war, Turkey has taken on a massive, thankless military task, and the Kurds, yet again, have been backstabbed by their Western allies. Anyone see “peace” coming out of that?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Turkish invasion of Syria 2019, US Kurdish relations, Trump threat t obliterate Turkish economy, Turkish armed forces, TurkeyKurdish history
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