On Tuesday this week, the Trump administration announced it had approved a Pentagon procedure to supply heavy weapons to Syrian Kurdish groups fighting to oust ISIS fighters from Raqqa, the capital of the terrorism group’s self-proclaimed caliphate. The sprint will bolster one American ally, the Syrian Kurds, but it will infuriate another, Turkey.
In retaliation for Washington’s increased support of the Kurds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could curtail his cooperation with the United States. He could limit access to the Incirlik air base, which is a critical hub for U.S. air missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And Turkey has already disrupted the war against ISIS in Syria by launching attacks on Kurdish rebels.
On April 25, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish militia bases in Syria and Iraq, killing at least 20 fighters. For several days afterward, Kurdish rebels and Turkish troops exchanged artillery fire along the Syrian-Turkish border. Tensions eased only after the United States moved troops and armored vehicles to parts of the Syrian border to act as a buffer between Turkish forces and the Kurds.
In Syria’s protracted war, this episode seems minor. But it’s fragment of a complex sub-clash within the larger Syrian war that could ultimately develop it tough to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds. In November, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of rebel groups, began a ground offensive—with intensive US air support—to oust ISIS from Raqqa. The campaign started with a mobilization of approximately 30,000 rebels to encircle Raqqa and chop it off from everyone sides, to deny ISIS the ability to resupply weapons and fighters.
The rebels are now within miles of Raqqa, and the latest infusion of American weaponry—anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, heavy machine guns and mortars—will serve them withstand the fierce resistance that ISIS fighters will keep up inside the city.
But Turkey is targeting the Kurdish forces that are at the spine of the Raqqa offensive, and some Kurdish leaders are threatening to withdraw from the anti-ISIS battle unless Washington protects them from Turkish airstrikes.
The SDF is a coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab, Christian and Turkmen rebel groups that is anchored by the People’s Protection Units (known by its Kurdish acronym, the YPG), which includes thousands of Syrian Kurdish fighters. The YPG has become a crucial American ally in northern Syria, and it has played a main role in the battle to oust ISIS from Raqqa.
Erdogan and the Turkish military own been furious since the Trump administration decided to continue the Raqqa offensive by supporting the largely Kurdish forces—instead of relying on Turkey and its Syrian allies. whether the clash intensifies between Turkey and the Kurds, the YPG could be forced to divert some of its fighters absent from the Raqqa battle to protect a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria called Rojava. By trying to weaken the Kurds in Syria, Erdogan could ultimately serve ISIS and prolong the battle for Raqqa. This is a worst-case scenario for the Trump administration, where its two major allies would be fighting each other instead of ISIS.
Turkish officials are threatening more air strikes against Kurdish rebels, despite U.S. efforts to protect them. “We can arrive unexpectedly in the night,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul on April 30. “We are not going to tip off the terrorism groups and the Turkish Armed Forces could arrive at any moment.”
In late August, Turkey sent several hundred of its special forces troops into Syria, and began carrying out air strikes to serve rebel factions allied with Ankara consolidate control of territory near the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish-backed rebels own fought both ISIS jihadists and occasionally the U.S.-backed YPG militia. Turkish leaders view the YPG and other Syrian Kurdish groups as allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish government since the 1980s. Erdogan and other Turkish officials often narrate the YPG as a terrorist group and compare it to ISIS.
Erdogan, who is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House on May 16, had planned to lobby the Trump administration to drop its support of the YPG, and instead back Turkey’s favored Syrian rebels to capture Raqqa. But now that Trump publicly adopted the Pentagon’s procedure to continue arming the YPG and its allies, the increasingly autocratic Erdogan might travel domestic empty-handed.
That could immediate Erdogan to step up his campaign against the Syrian Kurds, pushing the YPG to divert some of its manpower and resources absent from Raqqa to protecting Rojava and other border areas from Turkish incursions. And whether the Raqqa campaign falters under the Trump administration’s watch, ISIS would own a safe base from which it would unleash contemporary attacks in Syria and Iraq, and against the West.
Trump says he wants to avoid direct U.S. involvement in Syria. The clash has expanded into a proxy war that involves regional and world powers—including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—whose interests sometimes overlap, but at other times lead to multiple conflicts. Soon after the war began in 2011, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States started sending weapons and funds to rebel groups trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. More recently, Washington has shifted its focus to fighting ISIS fairly than ousting the Syrian regime. Assad’s two main backers, Russia and Iran, are mainly targeting rebel factions opposed to the regime, fairly than trying to defeat ISIS.
Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the CIA had funneled up to $1 billion a year in weapons, including light arms, ammunition and anti-tank missiles to Syrian rebel groups fighting the Assad regime that were deemed moderate by American officials. But some of these rebels own been forced into battlefield alliances with al-Qaeda affiliated groups and other jihadists.
During the presidential campaign, Trump argued that the Pentagon should arm and serve Kurdish factions, both in Iraq and Syria. “I’m a large fan of the Kurdish forces,” he said in July.
But once in office, Trump had to balance the objections of allies like Turkey. Among his first top appointments, Trump named Michael Flynn, a retired general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his national security adviser. Flynn later admitted that while he was advising Trump’s campaign, he had earned more than $500,000 as a lobbyist for a prominent Turkish businessman connected to Erdogan. On Election Day, Flynn published an op-ed article that expressed strong support for Erdogan’s government and argued that Washington should be more sympathetic to its concerns.
On Feb. 13, after only 24 days in office, Flynn was forced to resign his post after revelations that he had had potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the presidential transition. With Flynn’s ouster, Erdogan lost his main supporter in Trump’s inner circle. Since then, Turkey’s leader seems convinced that the Trump administration favors Syrian Kurds at his expense. And he is willing to exert pressure by disrupting the war against ISIS.