Turkish military forces have crossed into Syria to oust Islamic State (IS) militants from the border area.
The first objective was Jarabulus, an IS stronghold along the Turkish-Syrian border. It has been used to bring jihadists into Syria and smuggle out antiquities and oil.
The Turkish intervention, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, is being supported by U.S. and coalition air forces, and possibly U.S. Special Forces units, as well as 1,500 to 2,000 fighters largely from the Saudi- and Turkish-supported Ahrar al-Sham. The total size of the Turkish force is unclear.
A Syrian government spokesman condemned the intervention as a “a blatant violation of Syrian sovereignty.” A Syrian Kurdish spokesman called it “blatant aggression,” and declared that Syria would become a “quagmire for Turkey.”
The intervention adds a new element of uncertainty to a battlefield that has been growing even more chaotic and complex. Recently, Syrian and American jets found themselves in a close encounter, while below them the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) engaged with units of the Syrian Army. Meanwhile in northern Syria, the SDF clashed with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), both contesting control of Islamic State-occupied Jarabulus in northern Aleppo province.
Turkey’s action was prompted by the refusal of the Kurdish-led SDF to retreat from newly taken Manbij and withdraw to positions on the east bank of the Euphrates. Turkey’s insistence that the SDF not advance beyond the Euphrates has been an issue between Turkey and the United States. But it now appears that Washington has come around to supporting Ankara’s position and is insisting that the SDF withdraw. Over the last year, the SDF has emerged as Washington’s most effective proxy in the Syrian Civil War and there has been close co-operation between the SDF and U.S. air forces.
Faced with having to live with the continuation of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the prospect of a Kurdish state along its southern border, Turkey has opted for the former. It’s likely that recent Turkish overtures to Russia and Iran, and Turkey’s new, publicly-stated acceptance of the continuation of al-Assad as a short-term transitional figure in a post-civil war Syria, was a quid pro quo for acceptance of the Turkish intervention.
For Turkey, the most important objective now is neither the defeat of the Islamic State nor the overthrow of the Assad regime. It is to prevent the seizure of the portion of Aleppo province between the Kurdish-controlled Kobani and Afrin cantons by the SDF.
There are three major theatres of operation in Syria. Two are primarily engaged with the Islamic State, while the other involves conflict between the various Syrian rebel groups and the Assad government.
These theatres are: the northern portion of the Aleppo Protectorate between Afrin and Kobani cantons; the city of Aleppo and Idib province; and the core Islamic State Euphrates corridor between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour. The Turkish intervention will likely impact all three.
The conflict in northern Aleppo involves a twofold struggle, first to oust Islamic State from the region along the Turkish border, then to determine whether they will be replaced by the American-backed, Kurdish-led SDF or the Turkish-supported FSA.
Turkish authorities announced on Thursday that Islamic State militants had withdrawn from Jarabulus and that the town had been secured. That leaves al-Bab as the last major IS stronghold in the region.
For the SDF, control of the region is critical for a link between Afrin and Kobani cantons.
SDF forces have announced that they are withdrawing to the east bank of the Euphrates. And Turkish military sources say they don’t plan to leave anytime soon.
Over the weekend however there were numerous clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish YPG fighters. At least 35 people, including an unknown number of civilians, were killed
What is clear from Turkey’s intervention is that it will not allow a Syrian-Kurdish state to be created along its southern border. Washington, at least for now, is siding with Turkey.
How these actions will ripple through the battle zone that is Syria is anybody’s guess.
Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.
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