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Haid Haid

Will Syrian Kurds defy Turkey’s red-line?

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, which includes Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians, gather on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Al-Hol, in the Syrian Hasakeh province on November 14, 2015 after they took control of the area from fighters from the Islamic State group. (AFP / Delil Souleiman)

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by Kurdish forces, appear to be planning a major attack to seize control of the remaining Syrian-Turkish border that is held by ISIS. Although the launch date is still unknown, the plan includes crossing the Euphrates to attack the ISIS held towns of Jarablus and Manbij in northern Syria. Such an attack would deprive ISIS of its last border crossing with Turkey, which is used to smuggle in supplies and foreign fighters. However, this could lead to a confrontation with Turkey, which views the prospect of a contiguous, autonomous Kurdish region along its border with northern Syria as a national security threat. While it is not possible to verify how soon the SDF will launch its offensive, indications on the ground show that it will happen very soon due to the local dynamics of the conflict as well as the shifting priorities of international actors. 

 

On December 23, the SDF announced the launch of a new offensive south of Kobane to drive out ISIS militants from these areas. Soon after, the SDF seized control of the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River from ISIS militants on 26 December. This quick victory came as a surprise due to the strategic location of Tishreen Dam. It is one of three major dams on the Euphrates that provides power to northern Syria and the last remaining passage that connects Aleppo to Raqqa.

 

The easy explanation for how this happened is that ISIS has been weakened due to the increased attacks carried out against it on different fronts. However, others might argue that the move could be a tactical retreat to make one of Turkey’s worst nightmares come true, which will lead to a Turkish-Kurdish confrontation. The seizure of Tishreen Dam allows the SDF to advance towards Jarablus and Manbij in northern Syria in a step to unite Kobane with the town of Afrin and establish the Rojava region, a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria.

 

Turkey’s reaction to the SDF’s seizure of the Tishreen Dam didn’t take long, although there was no direct conformation with the SDF. The Free Syrian Army-affiliated Sultan Murad Division, a Turkish-backed rebel group, issued a warning for civilians to leave the ISIS-held villages between northern Aleppo's Aazaz and Jarabulus, and labelled them military zones. Hours later, Turkey deployed a mine sweeper to remove the landmines planted by ISIS along the Syrian-Turkish border near Jarabulus. The Turkish-backed group began its offensive against ISIS with the support of heavy artillery fire from Turkey, which led to the capture of three villages near Jarabulus. However, the slow-moving offensive faced a setback when an ISIS counterattack recaptured two of the villages. The division’s inability to advance further against ISIS sabotaged Turkey’s plan to seize the ISIS-held areas between Jarabulus and Azaz before the SDF.

 

The Syrian regime forces, accompanied by Russian air support, have advanced in recent weeks toward the ISIS controlled town of al-Bab and are now within 10 kilometers of it. That is the closest the regime forces have come to this town since 2012, which further changed the local dynamics of the conflict on the ground. Local activists in al-Bab have confirmed that ISIS has been moving things out of al-Bab, which makes its withdrawal from the town a possibility. Although it is difficult to verify these reports, one of ISIS’s recent tactics has been to withdraw from areas that are under attack and strike in more advantageous areas. This tactic was clearly displayed when ISIS withdrew from Tishreen Dam, only to advance in Deir Ezzor. ISIS could follow the same tactic to withdraw from al-Bab and continue to advance in Deir Ezzor. This tactic allows the group to reduce its losses by conserving resources and having the advantage of choosing the time, the enemy and the battlefield. The timing of the Syrian regime’s attack on al-Bab would provide the SDF with a golden opportunity to advance towards Jarabulus, which will force ISIS to divide its resources in that area between two different fronts.

 

Under Turkey’s influence, the US has been reluctant to provide the SDF with air support and arms to advance towards Jarabulus. However, the Kurds have already defied Turkey’s red line by crossing the Euphrates, which was done with the support of the US-led coalition. Turkey’s influence on Washington’s policy toward Syrian Kurds seems to be declining, as the tensions continue to grow between the two countries. The US is not happy with Turkey’s involvement in the fight against ISIS; however, it still needs Turkey to allow the US-led coalition to use its airbase and to prevent ISIS fighters from crossing into Syria.

 

Nevertheless, the Kurdish forces’ leverage on the US is increasing since they are considered the only reliable partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The US special operations troops have reportedly taken over an airfield in areas controlled by the SDF in northeastern Syria, which also enforces the SDF’s importance in the fight against ISIS. Additionally, the Kurdish forces could benefit from not being invited to the peace talks in Geneva in order to push the US, as a compromise, to provide them with air support to take over Jarabulus. Moreover, the Russians have shown interest in providing air support to Syrian Kurdish forces to get back at Turkey for downing a Russian fighter jet in November.

 

The recent visit to Kurdish areas by the US special envoy for the international coalition against ISIS makes a shift in the US policy towards Syrian Kurds a possibility. According to press statements, the purpose of the visit was to look for ways to increase the coalition’s pressure against ISIS, which will have an impact on many developments that will be seen in the area.

 

The US’ decision on whether or not to support the Kurdish forces to advance towards Jarabulus should take into consideration the long-term impact of their decision on the local dynamics of the conflict. The increased tension and mistrust between the Kurdish forces and Arab groups inside Syria and Turkey should be addressed in order to avoid creating future conflicts. Otherwise, Turkey will use all its cards to stop the Kurdish forces from controlling these areas and ISIS will continue to use the Arabs-Kurds tension as a recruiting tool, which will make it even more difficult to end the conflict in Syria.   

 

 

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, which includes Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians, gather on the outskirts of the northeastern town of Al-Hol, in the Syrian Hasakeh province on November 14, 2015 after they took control of the area from fighters from the Islamic State group. (AFP / Delil Souleiman)

The easy explanation for how this happened is that ISIS has been weakened due to the increased attacks carried out against it on different fronts. However, others might argue that the move could be a tactical retreat to make one of Turkey’s worst nightmares come true, which will lead to a Turkish-Kurdish confrontation."