ISIS Is Losing in Northern Syria, but Ankara Is Unhappy

Osman Orsal/Reuters

ISTANBUL — A battle in the northern Syrian border town of Tal Abyad has inflicted a potentially crippling defeat on ISIS that could impede the jihadists’ rampage through Syria and Iraq. But U.S. ally Turkey is not happy about it. In fact, Ankara is accusing Washington of foul play. Some in Turkey want their own military—which is part of NATO—to intervene on Syrian soil, and not against ISIS.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a militia known by the initials YPG, says it captured Tal Abyad from ISIS after fierce combat and also secured the town’s border crossing into Turkey. The fighting, which saw jets of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition attack jihadist positions in support of the assault by the YPG and allied militias, sent more than 20,000 people from Tal Abyad and surrounding villages over the border into Turkey in the last two weeks.

Tal Abyad is of great strategic significance for ISIS because the town sits on a road leading from the Turkish border to Raqqa, the capital of the self-styled ISIS “caliphate” or Islamic State 50 miles to the south. The loss of Tal Abyad makes it harder for ISIS to get supplies and new fighters, many of whom travel to Syria via Turkey. It also disrupts illegal oil exports by ISIS into Turkey. According to Al Jazeera, ISIS now controls only one border crossing from Syria to Turkey, in Jarabulus.

Allied air support was vital for the Kurdish victory in Tal Abyad. Allied jets destroyed ISIS positions and prevented the jihadist group from sending large-scale reinforcements to the beleaguered town since convoys of troops and weapons were an easy target for the warplanes.

Serdar Erdurmaz of the Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep, a Turkish city close to the Syrian border, said the defeat in Tal Abyad had deprived ISIS of an important lifeline to Turkey. He told The Daily Beast the battle had also demonstrated the crucial role of Kurdish forces in the U.S. strategy against ISIS and at the same time highlighted severe differences between Ankara and Washington. “The U.S. is helping those who attack ISIS,” Erdurmaz said. “They are using the Kurds, but that is not in Turkey’s interest.” The Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet reported that the “U.S. has chosen the Kurds instead of Turkey” as allies in Syria.

What’s Turkey’s problem? To be sure, the victory by the YPG and the U.S. alliance in Tal Abyad has helped to push ISIS away from the Turkish border and weaken the jihadist group. But the YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian ally and offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984. Ankara is concerned that the PKK’s ultimate goal in Syria is to fulfill its old dream of creating an independent Kurdish state.

Turkish government spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Ankara saw signs of “ethnic cleansing” in Tal Abyad, where Turkmens and Arabs were forced to flee, and efforts by Syrian Kurds to unite Kurdish regions in northern Syria to form one homogenous area. According to a statement from Turkey’s disaster relief agency quoted by the official Anadolu news agency, roughly 21,000 Syrians, almost half of them children, sought refuge in Turkey because of the fighting around Tal Abyad in the last two weeks. Government spokesman Arinc said some of the refugees came from “villages bombarded by U.S. planes.”

Erdurmaz said the situation reflected the deep strategic differences between the Turkish and the U.S. approach to the Syrian crisis. While Turkey wants to concentrate on the battle against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Washington’s main priority is to weaken ISIS.

Arinc’s statement late Monday was the latest in a series of warnings by Turkey. As the battle for Tal Abyad escalated last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the US of helping the Kurds to push out non-Kurdish residents of the region, thereby strengthening the PKK around Tal Abyad. “Unfortunately, the West is hitting Arabs and Turkmens with planes and putting the PYD and the PKK in their place,” Erdogan said in a speech. “How are we supposed to see this positively? How are we supposed to see the West as honest?”

Turkey’s dismay over the Kurdish gains in northern Syria is shared by some Syrian rebel groups. In a joint statement, 15 groups accused the YPG of ethnic cleansing in and around Tal Abyad, a charge denied by the Kurds. But the performance of the YPG and PYD in Kobani, another border town they secured with U.S. air support after months of combat, suggest the allegations are not unfounded. There, as The Daily Beast has reported, longtime residents have been told they can’t go home again because the ruins of their homes are being turned into a memorial park commemorating YPG fighters.

The YPG’s success in Tal Abyad has united two parts of Rojava, a term used by the Kurds for the predominantly Kurdish regions of northern Syria, which had been separated by ISIS territory before. Cumhuriyet predicted that attention would now turn to the Afrin region further to the west, which is also claimed by the Kurds but partly controlled by ISIS and other rebel groups. The newspaper predicted that Rojava could soon be Turkey’s “new neighbor” along a stretch of 370 to 430 miles of its southern border. In practical terms, that would make it difficult or impossible for Turkey to continue it’s not-very-covert effort to influence ISIS by facilitating its resupply with fighters and arms. But the Turkish government puts another spin on it.

Erdogan supporters in Ankara say they are alarmed. Ibrahim Karagul, the editor of the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper wrote on Tuesday that recent gains for the Kurds in northern Syria were part of a Western plot to “destroy Turkey.” The aim was to block Turkey’s connections to the south and box it in by creating a strip of territory reaching from Iraq to the Mediterranean and controlled by anti-Turkish forces. There was only one way to counter the plan, Karagul wrote: “Military intervention is a must.”

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An anonymous member of the Turkish leadership, who has been tweeting under the pseudonym “Fuat Avni” and correctly predicted several moves by the Erdogan government in the past, said Tuesday that Turkey’s intelligence service and officials in the foreign ministry had been pressing for a decision to send the army into Syria, while the military was opposed to the plan.

Recent parliamentary elections in Turkey left no party with a clear majority, and efforts to form a new government have just gotten underway. But “Fuat Avni” said the outgoing government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had decided to order the military to cross the border. There was no government response to the allegation.