Friday, February 16, 2018

The al Qaeda Blind Spot for the U.S. Approach to Turkey

By Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella with the ISW and CTP Teams

Key Takeaway: A genuine U.S.-Turkey rapprochement will require Turkey to counter al Qaeda in Syria. The U.S. and Turkey released a joint statement on February 16, 2018 during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Ankara that expressed resolve to fight against terrorists, including al Qaeda. Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been expanding Ankara’s partnership with al Qaeda in Syria. Future negotiations with Turkey over political and security structures in Syrian Kurdish-dominated terrain, which will start with Manbij according to Secretary Tillerson, may de-escalate tensions. A broader U.S. effort to realign with Turkey in order to achieve American objectives will not survive Erdogan empowering al Qaeda in Northern Syria, however.

Turkey launched the main effort of its campaign against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin District of Northern Syria. Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition forces started a new cross-border military push to seize the town of Jinderis southwest of Afrin City on February 9, 2018. This line of advance likely represents the main effort to isolate Afrin City, as previously assessed by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition forces have also continued clearing operations on multiple axes along the Syrian-Turkish border.[1]

Turkey launched its main effort after renegotiating the terms of its air operations in Northern Syria with Russia. Russia temporarily denied airspace access to Turkey over Northern Syria after al Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) shot down a Russian Su-25 in Idlib Province on February 3. This downing triggered a flurry of bilateral diplomatic engagements between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Russia reportedly demanded the handover of the deceased pilot and access to the crash site in return for reopening the airspace to Turkey.[2] Turkish-backed opposition fighters delivered the pilot to Russia via Turkey on February 6. Russia later allowed Turkey to resume its air operations in Afrin Canton on February 9 following a conversation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 8.

Turkey is attempting to exploit Russia’s desire for a ‘de-escalation’ zone in Idlib Province to reinforce Turkish leverage in Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces established two forward operating bases near the towns of Tel Touqan and Surman in Eastern Idlib Province on February 9 and February 15, respectively.[3] The deployments follow the establishment of a similar outpost by Turkey at al Eis in Eastern Idlib Province on February 5 despite earlier resistance from pro-Bashar al Assad regime forces. Pro-regime targeting of the Turkish convoy indicates Turkey conducted the deployments outside of negotiated parameters for the de-escalation zone. However, Putin seeks to preserve the de-escalation zone at the cost of tensions with the Bashar al Assad regime and Iran. Russia shifted its air campaign away from the frontlines in Eastern Idlib Province after February 3 to allow Turkey’s deployment to its observation posts in Eastern Idlib Province. This shift occurred after HTS shot down the Russian Su-25. It underscores Putin is willing to abate hostilities in Idlib in order to avoid incurring significant setbacks ahead of Russian elections on March 18. Russian military police reportedly established their own forward base adjacent to Turkey’s near al Eis on February 15 to deter Iranian or Assad regime provocations against Turkey.

Erdogan is willing to provide intelligence to al Qaeda-linked forces to disrupt pro-regime expansions and degrade YPG defenses. Turkey continues to prioritize its objectives to replace the Assad regime with a government friendly to Turkey’s interests and to eradicate a safe haven for the YPG’s Turkey affiliate—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—in Syria. Turkey prioritizes these objectives over U.S. counterterrorism goals against ISIS or al Qaeda. Turkey supported the formation of a new joint operations room to consolidate opposition groups against a pro-regime offensive in Eastern and Southern Idlib Province on February 3. The ‘Repelling the Invaders’ Operations Room includes participation from Syrian Salafi-Jihadist groups including Ahrar al-Sham—a historic Turkish client—and may be orchestrated by HTS. Turkey may have provided intelligence to al Qaeda-aligned group Nour al Din al Zenki that led to Zenki’s interdiction of two arms shipments traveling to YPG forces defending Afrin. Zenki forces are also reportedly participating in Turkey’s offensive in Afrin.

Turkey deepened cooperation with al Qaeda to halt the pro-regime offensive in Idlib Province. ISW previously assessed that Turkey aimed to impose high costs on pro-regime forces and ultimately block their advance deeper into Idlib Province. Pro-regime forces halted their military operations in eastern Idlib Province on February 9. These changes reflect Turkey’s success in leveraging military pressure to compel a halt to the pro-regime offensive. Turkey’s positions are near frontlines with pro-regime forces and enable Turkey to block future pro-regime offensive operations deeper into Idlib Province. Turkey coordinated its establishment – and likely defense – of its bases in Idlib with HTS. Turkey relies upon al Qaeda-linked forces for force protection and logistical resupply of vulnerable positions in Idlib. Turkey is on track to expand its cooperation with and empowerment of al Qaeda in Syria. Turkey has reportedly also inspected former regime military bases in Ma’arrat al-Numan and Taftanaz farther south in Idlib Province. Turkey may establish additional positions at these facilities in the coming weeks.

Turkey’s actions in Syria make a true rapprochement with the U.S. increasingly difficult. Turkey is fostering al Qaeda’s consolidation in Northern Syria. Turkey’s deployment deep into Idlib will preclude Turkey from actively supporting possible future U.S. operations against al Qaeda in Syria. Turkish forces in Idlib would be immediately vulnerable to al Qaeda counter-escalation. Turkey’s logistical support to its forward bases in Idlib Province also transit through al Qaeda-held terrain. This vulnerability nullifies the U.S. strategy to outsource a counter-al Qaeda strategy to Turkey. The U.S. must address Turkey’s drift into a partnership with al Qaeda as a priority even while U.S. officials focus on near term de-escalation between Turkey and the YPG in Manbij in Northern Syria. New deployments of Russian troops to Idlib to accompany Turkish deployments would further draw Turkey, a NATO alliance member, into a military partnership with Russia and complicate any future U.S. operations against al Qaeda in Northern Syria.

This is an update to the Institute for the Study of War’s “Wars after ISIS” series. Read the previous update “U.S. Strategy in Syria is Failing.”

[1] “'Operation Olive Branch' to Afrin,” Anadolu Agency, February 11, 2018,
[2] Afrin'e hava harekatına Rusya engeli... 4 Şubat'tan bu yana hava operasyonu yapılmıyor,” Cumhuriyet, February 8, 2018, http://www(.)
[3]“TSK konvoyu, yeni gözlem noktası için İdlib’e intikal etti,” Anadolu Agency, February 9, 2018,; “Turkey army moves to set Syria ceasefire observation point,” Yeni Safak, February 15, 2018, https://www(.)