The United States depends on Kurdish militia to assist in destroying ISIS forces in Syria – but Turkey is gearing for a possible attack against those allies. So now, President Biden has a dilemma. Does he side with Turkey, a NATO ally, but not always in lockstep with Alliance initiatives? Or does the White House defend the Kurds, who have been essential in providing intelligence and other support to US troops in Syria ferreting out ISIS terrorists?
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the Syrian Kurds a terrorist organization and blamed the group for the Nov. 13 bomb attack in Istanbul, killing six civilians and wounding 81. But Erdogan lumps into the same pot The People’s Defense Units (YPG) which are aligned with the US in fighting ISIS in Syria, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group the US labeled a terrorist organization. The YPG has categorically denied any involvement in the bombing, blaming ISIS as the culprit. Nonetheless, Erdogan identified the YPG/PKK as the villains because it suits his purpose.
Turkey Complicates America’s Syrian Operation
To make matters worse, a Turkish ground assault in northeastern Syria could put nearly 1,000 US troops at risk. Moreover, the information American forces have gotten from Kurdish fighters has been invaluable in identifying and killing ISIS terrorists. And, though the Turks have engaged in repeated border incursions into Syria and a campaign of air strikes, large ground operations would be a significant escalation.
Additionally, as Fox News reported, “There is significant concern that Turkey’s planned ground invasion into Syria to root out the US-allied Kurds could open the floodgates for the release of thousands of imprisoned Islamic State terrorists.” In support of both the US and its allies, Kurdish imprisoned what many believe are “thousands of ISIS terrorists from more than 50 countries in prisons in northeastern Syria,” Fox explains. These ISIS terrorists have been taken out of action, and the prospect of a new wave of ISIS attacks by hardened Islamic State fighters roaming free represents significant danger. In a Defense Department press release on Wednesday, Nov. 23, Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said:
“The Department of Defense is deeply concerned by escalating actions in northern Syria, Iraq, and Turkiye. This escalation threatens the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s years-long progress to degrade and defeat ISIS. Recent air strikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of US personnel who are working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than ten thousand ISIS detainees.”
During a visit to the Syrian al-Hol refugee camp in September, US Central Command commander General Erik Kurilla emphasized the importance of dealing with ISIS in Syria. He warned that “ISIS has looked to exploit the conditions in the camp as a means of gaining new recruits to its cause.” For their part, Kurdish military forces in northeastern Syria working with US ground forces are now in a position where their military attention will be focused on the invading Turks. “The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria, meanwhile, said his group is prepared to repel a ground invasion by Turkey,” the Associated Press reported. Consequently, the US-allied Kurds in Syria have made it known they will not have time to continue helping American forces for the time being.
Making the situation more complicated, NATO member Turkey is coordinating with Russia on plans to invade Syria. “Turkish and Russian officials are negotiating a small-scale Turkish military operation to remove Syrian Kurdish fighters from the west of the Euphrates River in the coming weeks,” according to Middle East Eye, an independent news source located in London covering breaking news in the region.
Meanwhile, other NATO members are spending billions to defeat Russian soldiers in their invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, as Fox News also reported, “Turkey furnished Ukraine with 50 mine-resistant vehicles. Erdogan’s government has also sold the Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine.” If there were such a profession as a geopolitical psychologist, they would have their hands full with the plethora of internal conflicts the Turkey-Syria-US-NATO-Russia-Ukraine situation presents.
Keeping the information regarding ISIS in Syria flowing from the Kurds while maintaining some level of comity with Turkey will be challenging. The Biden foreign policy team cannot afford to create a situation where US forces are directly engaged in combat with ground troops sent to Syria by Erdogan. And, the message should be clear to Russia: Kurdish militia being attacked by Turkish troops is not your fight.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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