TSG IntelBrief: Turkey Makes a Move in Syria
August 25, 2016

Turkey Makes a Move in Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The August 24 Turkish-led incursion into Syria—supported by U.S. airstrikes—resulted in the retaking of the key town of Jarablus, reshaping the war in northern Syria. 

• A group of 4,000 fighters from disparate rebel groups, as well as Turkish armor, took Jarablus from the Islamic State without major fighting.

• In an unusually strong statement, U.S. Vice President Biden made clear that the limits of U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish rebels had been reached.

• Operation ‘Euphrates Shield’ is as much about Turkish determination to prevent further Kurdish expansion as it is about fighting the Islamic State.

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After five years of fighting, August 24 marked one of the more dramatic days of the Syrian civil war. Turkish forces crossed into northern Syria with armor, special operations forces, and airstrikes to lead a rebel assault against the Islamic State-held town of Jarablus. Despite the town’s critical importance as a way station for Islamic State foreign fighters, Turkish-led forces faced minimal resistance; the Islamic State had evidently pulled out of the town prior to the assault. 

The Turkish incursion is a significant event in the conflict, as it highlights the lengths that Turkey will go to prevent an autonomous Kurdish region along its southern border. Perhaps more significantly, the assault also made clear the limits of U.S. support for the Kurdish rebel forces that have been the most effective ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State. Calling the operation to retake Jarablus ‘Euphrates Shield,’ Turkey’s stated goal was to push back the Islamic State as well as the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD); Ankara views the latter, along with Turkish Kurdish groups, as a far greater threat than the Islamic State.

The recent success of the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in liberating the town of Manbij had put Turkey on edge; the PYD’s military wing—the Popular Protection Units (YPG)—plays a significant role in the SDF. The advance of Kurdish troops beyond the west bank of the Euphrates was a red line for Ankara. Statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made clear that Turkey intended to create a buffer zone between its border and Syrian Kurdish forces.

Hours after the assault began, U.S. Vice President Biden arrived in Ankara for an important fence-mending meeting with Turkish officials. Tensions have been at unprecedentedly high levels between the U.S. and Turkey since the failed coup on July 15. Vice President Biden made clear that the U.S. supported the Turkish push into Syria, framing it as a welcome addition in the fight against the Islamic State. He also pointedly stated that the YPG needed to withdraw east of the Euphrates or see U.S. support end. Having pressed west as far as it was prudent to go, the YPG will likely withdraw to avoid a full Turkish campaign against it. It will not go quietly, however, and tensions between the two sides will only mount.

The Kurds in Iraq and now Syria have seen international support waver many times as the geopolitical self-interests of their allies shift. The U.S. rightfully views the Syrian Kurds as the most effective fighting force to partner with and support in the fight against the Islamic State—the top U.S. priority. The vast majority of Syrian rebel groups view the fight against the Assad regime as the real fight, while Turkey, perhaps shifting on its demand that Assad step down immediately, has always seen the fight against the Kurds as its true battle.

The Islamic State withdrew from Jarablus without much of a fight, which saved it from a crushing defeat. The group stood little chance against a determined force that included Turkish ground troops, armor, and air power. The military defeat of the Islamic State has always been a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if,’ but the landscape of the Syrian battlefield after the group’s defeat is likely to be even more complex.

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