By Dr. Can Kasapoglu
The writer is a defense analyst at the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM), an Istanbul-based think-tank.
On Dec. 19, 2018, President Donald Trump made a bold move and ordered
Ankara welcomed the decision and underlined its commitment to boost the counter-Daesh efforts. In the meanwhile, the Turkish military is gearing up for a cross-border campaign in the east of the Euphrates river, which would mark the third major endeavor following Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. Current indicators suggest that the scale of the campaign could be larger than the previous ones, which would demand a thorough force generation. At the time of writing, it was really hard to monitor what was going on in Manbij.
The withdrawal news and Turkey’s preparations exacerbated the already fierce debates, as one could expect. Critics of President Trump’s decision mainly reacted to two aspects. While some disagreed with the declaration of victory in confronting Daesh, others voiced their skepticism about working primarily with Turkey, instead of the Obama administration’s legacy of cooperating with the PYD / YPG (under the Syrian Democratic Forces framework) which have organic ties with the PKK terrorist organization.
In fact, it would be wise to avoid declaring an early victory against Daesh. The terrorist network is resilient, cunning, and is watching for an opportunity of resurgence. It has not been fully defeated yet. Only, territorial setbacks have brought about a drastic shift in its center of gravity.
However, when it comes to the skepticism about more closely partnering with Turkey, the discussion needs a sober wake-up call. Both in the Turkish and American strategic communities – hopelessly letting aside most of the European reactions that managed to romanticize a security issue –, the arguments seem to be away from realpolitik and coolheaded realism. Simply put, Turkey is a NATO nation that enjoys one of the strongest military powers in the alliance, and borders Syria along a 900-km frontier. The force it could bring to hammer the terrorist threat would be larger and more battle-hardened than the entire armed forces of many US allies. Overall, it is not the Trump administration, but geopolitics that favors the Turkish option.
The Only NATO Nation without a ‘No Boots on the Ground’ Restrain
Let us continue with some tangible, realistic facts for grasping the current situation.
First, Turkey remains the only NATO nation that has not adopted a ‘no boots on the ground’ abstention when fighting the terrorist threat in Syria. In fact, many Western states have preferred very low profile military commitments (save France, which sent its sole aircraft carrier to pound Daesh following the tragic 2015 Paris attacks). In general, Washington’s allies employed limited airpower, and at best, dispatched small special forces contingents. Ankara, on the other hand, deployed a multi-brigade assault force to strike the terrorist organization’s major bastion in the west of the Euphrates, al-Bab. Back in 2016, the al-Bab offensive marked the one and only situation that a NATO nation’s large conventional formations even engaged in close quarters combat with Daesh militants.
Second, Turkey enjoys the second largest land force within the transatlantic alliance, in addition to some 900-km frontier with Syria. In recent years, its entire commando brigades have fought in active armed conflicts, including urban warfare environment. Besides, the Turkish military enjoys robust armed drone capabilities, a modern air force, and combat-ready armored and mechanized units deployed along the Syrian border. All in all, Ankara can run large-scale counterterrorism and stability operations while meeting demanding logistical requirements. No other US ally could bring such a force concentration to the table.
Third, leaving aside military capabilities, Turkey has the will to take over the leading responsibility in wiping out the remaining Daesh presence in the northern parts of Syria. The United States does not have any other ally whose government, parliament, and more importantly, public opinion would largely approve sending troops into a civil war-torn country.
‘Substantial ties’ and perils of the past
Most of the think-tanks in Washington objected President Trump’s decision. Some recommend sticking with the PYD
Let us re-think the issue in a different light. “The PKK is a terrorist organization not only in the eyes of the Turkish government but in the eyes of the US government as well”. These were the words of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his April 2016 testimony before the Senate. Notably, upon a question, Secretary Carter also confirmed the existence of “substantial ties” between the PYD / YPG and the PKK. Now, any policy recommendation favoring the SDF option (despite the PYD / YPG dominance) over a NATO ally, who was with the US troops across Korea to Afghanistan for more than half a century, will have to explain if Secretary Carter was wrong when confirming the “substantial ties”.
Some colleagues in
Yet, the US policy circles should also see the very fact that the moment President Trump hinted at a withdrawal from Syria, the PYD / YPG has started to force their cooperation options with the Baath regime and the Syrian Arab Army.
Apart from the SDF obsession, some analysts, in fact rightly, argued that Daesh was not defeated and the fight was not over when criticizing President Trump’s decision to withdraw. This is accurate.
However, to decisively prevent the resurgence of Daesh, the first and foremost requirement is to prevent the terrorist group’s ability to exploit the vulnerabilities of the Sunni Arab population of the region.
The PYD / YPG, and the Baath
All in all, the Syrian conundrum is so complex as it is made of hundreds of simple pieces. If the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran stay in Syria, Israel’s national security will be severely threatened. If Russia can secure an international consensus to reconstruct the country, it would mark a true victory. If Europe cannot get a return of the refugees
Nevertheless, there is also ground for optimism. The withdrawal decision was declared in a flamboyant way and shocked international community. But now, there is a new chapter in restoring the troubled relationship between Washington and Ankara. With right moves, Turkey could prove the value of having a NATO ally bordering Syria in tackling Daesh’s resurgence to the American policy community, while, in return, the US could show that it would never favor the PYD / YPG over a key NATO nation. In fact, this mutual
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