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Turkish brinkmanship increases risk of direct conflict with US forces

Turkish brinkmanship increases risk of direct conflict with US forces

Despite intensified talks between senior Turkish and US officials this week, Turkish President Erdogan and his team have sustained their verbal broadsides against the United States. Ankara has been full-throated in demanding that Washington withdraw all support from the Syrian branch of the PKK, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The Turkish government is still threatening to rout the US-allied YPG in the northern city of Manbij where the US has a few hundred forces.

Hard to hit the brakes amid the high stakes

Neither the US nor the Turkish government ultimately want direct military conflict, but Erdogan’s brinkmanship - combined with the deficit in trust between Ankara and Washington - mean that a miscalculation is distinctly possible.

The risk of direct military conflict is heightened by the bad blood between Turkey’s proxy force in the form of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the YPG. The closer the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) gets to US forces, the greater the possibility that their respective proxies will provoke direct military conflict between the two members of NATO.

Ankara is outraged by Washington’s failure to cease arming the YPG and to withdraw its fighters from the western side of the Euphrates, as former Secretary of State John Kerry promised in 2016. But the Turkish government is also being propelled by a dangerous nationalist wave which could reduce its ability to moderate or shift tack during talks with the US. The groundswell of nationalism is partly of the Turkish government’s own making and one which President Erdogan wants to sustain.

The renaming of a street in front of the US Embassy in Ankara to Olive Branch – the name given to current Turkish military operation in northern Syria – reflects Ankara’s limited appetite for compromise.

Eye on the ball and don’t blink

President Erdogan expects Washington to blink first, but abandoning the YPG is unpalatable for Pentagon and the White House. Bending to Ankara’s demands could prevent Washington from landing a knock-out blow to the remaining pockets of Islamic State resistance in northern Syria.

A stream of YPG fighters from Manbij and north-eastern Syria are heading for Afrin – a trend which could increasingly cause problems for US-led efforts to eradicate the remnants of Islamic State.

The fight against Islamic State is not only a chief foreign policy and security priority for Washington. It has also proven costly for US taxpayers. Figures from the US Defence Department place spending on the campaign to defeat Islamic State at just under USD11 billion.

Caving in to Turkey’s demands would not only be throwing the US most effective allied fighting force in Syria under the bus. It would also hand Moscow, Tehran and Damascus another strategic success by severely undermining the US’s ability to exercise its already limited influence over the future of Syria. Bashar al-Assad may in turn be able to claw back even more territory.

The US determination not to abandon Manbij has been highlighted by the conspicuous visits of Lt. Gen. Paul Funk and Maj. Gen. James Jarrard to Manbij on 07th Feb. Funk’s warning that the US would “respond aggressively” if it is hit in Manbij was clearly directed towards Turkey.

What could de-escalation between Turkey and the US look like?

Shifting realities and circumstances in northern Syria, combined with the limited appetite in Washington and Ankara for a military clash, could in the best case, slowly deescalate the current crisis. The Free Syrian Army and TSK are making only slow and incremental progress in tightening the noose around Manbij, but, as stated above, the YPG is also receiving reinforcements from elsewhere in Syria.

The regime in Damascus, which has a vested interest in bogging the TSK down in a quagmire while also bleeding the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the YPG, is allowing YPG fighters to move through territory it controls to reach Afrin.

A prolonged and increasingly costly campaign in Afrin could ultimately reduce Turkey’s appetite to attempt the even more formidable and risky task of neutralising the YPG in Manbij where Kurdish fighters from across the northeast would deploy en masse. Afrin’s YPG has been preparing for a Turkish operation for months, and the city is Kurdish, which means that the TSK will be treated as occupiers should they take what is left of a city that is in the process of being flattened.

The threat of US sanctions against Ankara as a result of Turkey’s deal to acquire Russia’s S400 missile defence system and an expanded probe into Turkish breaches of the US sanctions regime against Iran may also help convince Ankara to narrow its objectives in northern Syria.

A quagmire is by no means inevitable, however. The TSK may yet vanquish the YPG in a relatively short time period, having learned lessons from its campaign to take al-Bab in 2017. This includes coordinating infantry advances with precision fire. Afrin is, after all, a relatively small geographic area and should at least in principle be easy to take. Once the TSK sets its sights on Manbij, Washington may not be able to resist Turkish pressure in the same way as it is now.

Convincing the YPG to withdraw from Manbij to the other side of the Euphrates could also help de-escalate tensions between Ankara and Washington and allow the Turkish government to define Operation Olive Branch as a success to Erdogan’s domestic constituents. But doing so would represent a big u-turn for Washington.

Russian roulette

You can count on Russia playing its hand, however. Moscow may frustrate Operation Olive Branch should the Syrian Kurds in Afrin decide to revisit and accept Moscow’s offer to close the airspace over Afrin to Turkish fighter jets and eventually allow Bashar al-Assad’s forces to take control of the territory. The Kremlin could also bring Turkish air sorties over Afrin to an abrupt halt if Ankara fails to hold its end of a bargain, which is widely believed to involve allowing Damascus win back control of Idlib.

In the event of a stalemate around Afrin due to a Russian red light, it is hard to see how the TSK could justify moving in on Manbij.

In the event that Turkey’s room for manoeuvre shrinks, Ankara may be more open to establishing a ‘safe zone’ which works off the framework outlined by Foreign Secretary Rex Tillerson in January. But this is merely one of many scenarios. The negative trajectory in Turkish / US relations currently shows no signs of a correction.

By Anthony Skinner, Director MENA

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