Friday, November 9, 2018

Turkey Brief: Erdogan Ramps Up Pressure on the U.S.

Turkey Brief is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Turkish government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.

Reporting Period: October 20 - November 6, 2018

Authors: Elizabeth Teoman with Jennifer Cafarella, John Dunford, Paul Becker, and Kieran Hatton

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to pressure U.S. President Donald Trump into making new concessions in Syria by threatening an offensive against the primary partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Northern Syria. Erdogan has not yet set the military conditions required to follow through on this threat. He most likely intends to use the threat of violence to win political concessions that roll back the gains won by Syrian Kurds along the Syrian-Turkish Border. He is nonetheless setting long-term conditions to challenge security and governance structures established by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Eastern Syria by exploiting seams between local Arabs and Kurds.

Turkey is escalating its attacks against the primary partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) began cross-border shelling of military positions held by the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northern Syria on October 28. The shelling targeted positions near a number of urban centers along the Syrian-Turkish Border including Kobani, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ayn, and Qamishli. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the strikes represented the first phase of a “more extensive and effective” operation on October 30. Opposition groups backed by Turkey have also warned of upcoming attacks against the SDF in Northern Syria. Hamza Division Commander Saif Polat - a Syrian Turkmen - claimed ongoing preparations for a campaign east of the Euphrates River on November 6.[1] The Hamza Division is a former partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. It is currently backed by Turkey and participated in past offensives against the SDF in Northern Syria.

Turkey has not yet set conditions for a major cross-border intervention in Northern Syria. The ongoing shelling is not yet concentrated enough to represent effective condition-setting for an offensive by the Turkish Armed Forces. It remains much more limited than the bombardment that preceded the start of ground operations by Turkey in the majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton in Northern Syria in January 2018. Other typical indicators of an upcoming ground campaign have also not yet emerged in openly-available sources as of November 8. The Turkish Air Force has not engaged in airstrikes against the SDF in Eastern Syria as it did ahead of operations to seize Afrin Canton. The Turkish Armed Forces also have not yet sent reinforcements to the Syrian-Turkish Border east of the Euphrates River or removed portions of the border wall in Northern Syria. Turkey has instead deployed additional military units into Idlib Province in Western Syria, suggesting that it remains focused on the preservation of a de-escalation zone brokered with Russia and Iran in September 2018. Turkey has never conducted cross-border ground operations without some participation from the Turkish Special Operations Forces or Turkish Army.

Turkey has mobilized some of its existing opposition proxies in Northern Syria. These efforts do not yet seem focused on preparations for a major offensive against the SDF. Activists sources reported that Turkey relocated up to 1,200 Syrian opposition fighters to frontline areas near the contested town of Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province in early November 2018. Manbij is the largest outpost of the SDF west of the Euphrates River and a historic source of friction between the U.S. and Turkey. Erdogan likely intends to apply military pressure on Manbij in order to contest the area and generate local instability that discredits the SDF-affiliated Manbij Civil Council. He nonetheless remains unlikely to launch a direct attack against Manbij that could result in casualties from U.S. forces.

Turkey is likely attempting to use the threat of military escalation to extract concessions from the U.S. on the political future of Northern Syria. Erdogan is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump in Paris on November 11.[2] He may seek to win direct concessions on the final status of Manbij. The U.S. and Turkey reached a roadmap for tactical de-escalation over Manbij on June 4. The deal included coordinated and later combined joint patrols along frontlines north of Manbij. The first such joint patrol occurred on November 1. This agreement has nonetheless failed to temper the wider dispute between Turkey and the SDF. Erdogan threatened to conduct additional military operations across Northern Syria during negotiations over Manbij in March 2018. He also continues to claim that the Syrian Kurdish YPG – the dominant faction of the SDF - has not abided by promises to withdraw from Manbij. [3]

Erdogan may alternately use the threat of escalation to extract other near-term demands from the U.S. in Syria. He could demand that the U.S. support an effort to build and install a border security force led by opposition groups backed by Turkey east of the Euphrates River. The U.S. announced plans to establish a similar “border security force” with the SDF in January 2018, fueling Erdogan’s decision to launch ground operations in the Afrin region and threaten further action in Eastern Syria. Erdogan may also seek additional investment from the U.S. in reconstruction projects by Turkey in Northern Aleppo Province as an alternative to the SDF. Erdogan nonetheless remains unlikely to change his long-term goal to dismantle and otherwise eliminate the SDF in Northern Syria. He regards the SDF as an outgrowth of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and thus an existential threat to the territorial cohesion of Turkey.

Turkey is nonetheless setting long-term conditions to challenge the SDF in Eastern Syria. Turkey is currently testing its ability to exploit seams between local Arabs and the SDF along the Syrian-Turkish Border, particularly in majority-Arab Tel Abyad in Northern Ar-Raqqa Province. The SDF seized Tel Abyad from ISIS in June 2015. It rapidly installed formal governance structures that alienated local Arabs. It has also faced accusations of the forced displacement of Arabs near Tel Abyad. Turkey is attempting to exploit this seam. Hamza Division Commander Saif Polat posted a message calling on Arabs in Tel Abyad to participate in a protest against the SDF on November 11. Turkey is also reportedly recruiting opposition fighters from Tel Abyad who could potentially act as a future proxy force in Ar-Raqqa Province. The degree of success experienced by this effort thus far remains unclear.

Turkey is also attempting to degrade the stability of majority-Arab Deir ez-Zour Province under the SDF. Harakat al-Qiyam - a militant group likely backed by Turkey - announced its intent to assassinate the current head of the SDF-affiliated Deir ez-Zour Military Council (DMC) on November 5. The group has previously claimed a number of assassination attempts targeting the SDF including an attack on Manbij Military Council (MMC) Chair Mohammad Abu Adel in November 2017. Turkish media also recently highlighted claims by Imed Said - a former leader of the DMC - that local populations will not support governance by the SDF in Eastern Syria. Turkey is currently conducting active propaganda and tribal outreach efforts in Deir ez-Zour Province. It may ultimately intend to organize militant proxy forces for an insurgent campaign against the SDF in Eastern Syria. These efforts could be particularly effective after the end of ongoing operations by the DMC and SDF against ISIS in Southern Deir ez-Zour Province.

The U.S. has taken tentative steps to realign itself with Turkey but remains dedicated to its partnership with the SDF in Northern Syria. The U.S. announced multimillion-dollar rewards for information leading to the location of senior leaders of the PKK following the visit of a high-level delegation to Turkey on November 6. The Turkish Foreign Ministry welcomed the decision as a “positive development” but stressed its continued desire for “concrete action” with respect to the YPG in Syria.[3] The U.S. has thus far taken no serious action in Eastern Syria to address the fundamental concerns held by Turkey regarding the SDF. This effort thus is unlikely to generate a serious rapprochement with Erdogan.

The U.S. also remains dependent on the role played by the SDF in the Anti-ISIS Campaign in Syria. The SDF announced a temporary pause in its campaign against ISIS in Southern Deir ez-Zour Province on October 31 in protest against the cross-border shelling by Turkey. The U.S. later conducted joint patrols with the SDF in all of the major towns shelled by Turkey along the Syrian-Turkish Border. These patrols have thus far failed to deter further shelling but have thus far provided sufficient reassurance to preclude a major counter-escalation or redeployment to the border by the SDF.


The Trump Administration is right to focus on a wider realignment with Turkey. Its policy reorientation will nonetheless likely prove insufficient to repair the relationship unless they include meaningful change to the structure and composition of the SDF. Turkey’s efforts to challenge the SDF will likely prompt the SDF to become even less tolerant of its political opponents and persist in its marginalization of local Sunni Arabs, which will in turn create conditions conducive to ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist Groups. ISIS already appears to be resurgent in Ar-Raqqa City. The issue is urgent.

The U.S. nonetheless cannot wholesale accede to Turkey. The U.S. must recognize that Turkey’s threat to the SDF in Eastern Syria poses a serious risk to the overall success of the Anti-ISIS Campaign. Turkey’s efforts to destabilize the SDF will generate security and governance gaps that could be exploited by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The Russo-Iranian Coalition is simultaneously conducting its own tribal outreach in Eastern Syria with the intent to undermine the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Turkey is thus advancing the strategic objectives of multiple fundamental adversaries of the U.S. and NATO.

The status quo is not tenable in Northern Syria. The U.S. faces the looming risk of a wider war between Turkey and the Kurds. The YPG has thus far refrained from participating directly in domestic attacks in Turkey. It would likely recalculate if abandoned by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Turkey’s opposition proxies meanwhile are vulnerable to infiltration by Al-Qaeda and thus are not a viable candidate for unconditional support by the U.S. and NATO. The Trump Administration must chart a new course forward in Northern Syria that prioritizes the needs of local populations ravaged by ISIS and sustains our partnership with the SDF even as it creates opportunities for constructive involvement by Turkey. The alternatives invariably lead to further instability and long-term damage to the interests of the U.S. in Syria.

[1] Goksel Caglav, [“FSA is Preparing for East of the Euphrates,”] Yeni Akit, November 6, 2018, https://www(.)
[2] [“We Are Ranked 17th in National Income in the World and 13th in Terms of Purchasing Parity,”] Turkish Presidency, November 6, 2018, https://www(.)
[3] Fatih Hafiz Mehmet, “Erdogan Calls on Terrorists to Leave Syria's Manbij,” Anadolu Agency, November 3, 2018. https://www(.)
[4] [“Statement of the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hami Aksoy, in Response to a Question Regarding a Decision Taken by the U.S. State Department,”] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2018, http://www(.)