Obama Is Outmaneuvered in ISIS War

Switching partners: Ankara’s intervention, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s week-old intervention into northern Syria, which began with the successful expulsion of the Islamic State terror group from the border town of Jarablus, could be the beginning of the end for the Islamic State terror group’s haven in northern Syria.

But it may also be the beginning of the demise of the People’s Protection Units or YPG, the Kurdish militia that has been fighting ISIS with U.S. military support.

The Turkish intervention revealed the outlines of a dramatic shift in the international landscape surrounding the world’s most deadly conflict.

The picture now emerging was inconceivable just weeks ago: Russia, which has taken severe criticism for bombing civilian targets, has gained the initiative at U.S. expense.

Faced with the passivity of the lame-duck Obama administration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged as the prime mover in the drama.

Before sending troops into Syria last Thursday, a move he has been weighing for more than one year, Erdogan swallowed his pride and issued his regrets to Russia for shooting down a Russian aircraft that crossed into Turkish territory last November. Then he flew to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan’s top aides also had intense exchanges with Iran, the other major outside backer to the Assad regime.

To all appearances Russia has now changed sides, dragging its Syrian client with it. It’s also taking a direct role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, even claiming credit for this week’s airstrike in al-Bab, Syria, that killed Abl Mulhammad al Adnani, the Islamic State “attack dog” who was responsible for exporting the group’s terror attacks abroad. (One U.S. defense official called Russia’s claim “a joke.”)

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and the scorecard today is very different from that of a few weeks ago.

The old lineup: Russia and Iran vigorously opposed a Turkish intervention in Syria and threatened to counter it militarily. Following the Syrian regime’s playbook, they viewed the Syrian opposition forces, which have received covert U.S. military support, as terrorists on a par with ISIS and indeed have fought them while doing little to fight ISIS.

Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government all allied with the Kurdish militia, the YPG. The Assad regime, for example, provided arms and paid the wages for its public employees. Russia supported the YPG last February as it advanced into areas near the Turkish border that had been controlled by the U.S.-backed rebels. Since the YPG is closely tied to the insurgents in Turkey of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, Ankara viewed the nexus in northern Syria as hostile.

But, meanwhile, the Obama administration, fearful that a clash pitting NATO member Turkey against Russia or Iran could blow up into a much wider war, refused to support a Turkish intervention in Syria. Instead, it, too, teamed up with the YPG and provided air cover, intelligence, and other support in attacking Islamic State targets.

This rankled Turkey still further. But Ankara agreed that the U.S. could support the YPG as it advanced deep into northern Syria to capture the ISIS-held town of Manbij, provided YPG forces then withdrew from the mainly Arab lands.

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The new lineup: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.

So Turkey moved ahead on its own, with only limited U.S. air support, and after taking Jarablus quickly came into conflict with the YPG, which, far from withdrawing from Manbij, was also heading toward the border town, possibly to pre-empt Turkey.

Now, as Turkish relations with Russia are on the upswing, tensions are on the rise between Ankara and Washington.

Turkey’s ground assault has proved remarkably quick and successful. Moderate Arab fighters backed by Turkish troops pressed their offensive deeper into the province of Aleppo this week, seizing more territory from ISIS even as they continued their confrontation with the YPG: At least 40 villages previously under Islamic State or YPG control, including all the southern suburbs of Jarablus, up to the al-Sajour river. They are now poised to move into al-Bab, a town ISIS still holds to the west, where it has based its foreign intelligence headquarters.

The number of forces involved in the fighting is actually quite modest on both sides, with Turkey providing about 400 ground troops and 40 tanks to support 2,000 rebels as they take on about 1,000 ISIS fighters, according to rebel commanders.

The White House, though, rebuked Turkey for clashes with its main Syrian asset, the YPG (which is the core of a broader cobbled-together group including some Arab fighters under the rubric of the Syrian Democratic Forces). “We do not support and would oppose Turkey’s efforts to move south and engage in activities against the Syrian Democratic Forces, which we support,” Ben Rhodes, a White House National Security Council official, told reporters Monday.

Turkey, however, insisted that after capturing the Syrian town of Manbij with U.S. air support, the YPG should now withdraw across the Euphrates River from traditionally Arab lands into largely Kurdish north Syria in line with explicit commitments reaffirmed in Turkey last week by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden was echoing Turkish concerns about a creeping Kurdish statelet in northern Syria, built on the back of U.S. F-16 fighter jets and American commandos, as an undesirable consequence of routing ISIS from about 450 miles of terrain.

Turkey and most governments in the region view YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an internationally listed terrorist organization, but the Obama administration has circumvented legal restrictions blocking support to listed terror groups by maintaining the fiction that it is a separate organization.

The U.S. relationship with the YPG is a major security issue for Turkey, which is at war with the PKK in southern Turkey, with deadly clashes occurring almost daily. And now, those clashes have apparently extended into Syria.

One Turkish soldier was killed and several were wounded in a missile attack on a Turkish tank in Jarablus last Saturday, which was attributed to the YPG. A number of YPG fighters died following a retaliatory Turkish airstrike in the town of al-Amarna, the origin of the missile, the Turkish military said.

Arab rebel commanders involved in the Turkish-led operation have put the onus squarely on the YPG. They told The Daily Beast that instead of withdrawing to their own territory east of the Euphrates River after liberating Manbij, the YPG had begun moving north toward Jarablus even as Turkish forces entered Syria and seized the border town.

Erdogan clearly shares this view. “The Jarablus operation was a reflection of our determination,” he said this week. “Our operations will continue until terror organizations such as Daesh, the PKK and its Syrian arm, the YPG, cease to be a threat to our citizens.” (Daesh is a pejorative Arab acronym for the Islamic State.)

Washington initially endorsed Operation Euphrates Shield, as Turkey’s cross-border intervention is called, but according to The Wall Street Journal, was surprised by the timing and trimmed back its plans for extensive air support, which would have involved U.S. Special Operations Forces entering Syria with Turkish troops.

Erdogan, now six weeks in from having survived an assassination attempt and a military coup against his government, dealt unilaterally with Russian Putin to allow for the Turkish ground incursion, but it isn’t clear whether he coordinated or consulted with President Barack Obama.

On Aug. 23, hours after the White House planned a “a high-level meeting the next day to consider the Pentagon’s proposal to insert U.S. Special Operations forces as part of the Turkish operation,” Ankara lunched its offensive without so much as informing Washington. The “proposal never reached Obama’s desk, according to a senior administration official,” the Journal stated.

The Obama administration was thus put in an awkward and embarrassing position vis-a-vis its most important regional partner in the coalition war against ISIS, yet one growing increasingly and dangerously anti-American.

Turkey’s state media and political establishment have spent the last several weeks conspiratorially blaming the CIA, State Department, and White House for orchestrating the failed coup against Erdogan, a coup which appears to have been plotted by loyalists of Islamist cleric Fethuallah Gulen, domiciled in exile in the Poconos. (Turkey is seeking his extradition.)

Bilateral tensions are serious enough that Obama announced a one-on-one meeting next Sunday with Erdogan in Hangzhou, China, where major trading nations are holding the annual G20 summit.

Nevertheless, the U.S. can scarcely afford to sever relations with Turkey given the former’s reliance on Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for surveillance and bombing operations against Islamic extremists.

Moreover, at least part of Turkey’s offensive directly serves U.S. interests by removing ISIS from much of the northern Syrian border, depriving the jihadists of a major resupply route and a conduit for transporting foreign fighters back and forth into Europe.

On the back of Operation Euphrates Shield, moderate rebel forces in Al Rai’a, a town about 15 miles west of Jarablus, seized three villages from ISIS on Monday. These rebels are also supported by the Pentagon.

Curiously, there does not appear to be much of an international objection to Turkey’s campaign. Aside from the YPG, which has likened Turkey to ISIS and said that this intervention will culminate in a quagmire, no significant player in the conflict has raised much of a fuss.

Ankara notified the UN Security Council that it had intervened in Syria in self-defense, which is authorized under Article 51 of the UN Charter. But neither of Syria’s main foreign patrons, Iran and Russia, has thus denounced the invasion as an illegal violation of sovereign soil. Turkish officials spoke of a very positive international atmosphere, of a sort that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. (Only François Hollande, the president of France, mildly chided his NATO ally for its “contradictory” intervention.)

The muted response to Euphrates Shield may owe to the fact that after more than two years of watching ISIS operate freely in Syria with little interference from the Assad regime, Damascus and Moscow are quietly hoping that Turkey not only pushes the extremists from its borders but also prevents the YPG from setting up an autonomous territory in the evacuated territory northern Syria.

Were the YPG to create that autonomous state, known to Kurds as “Rojava,” it would encourage the PKK to try to set up a similar zone in southern Turkey, further threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Recently, the YPG clashed with Assad’s military in Hasakah city, the provincial capital of the eponymous province where much of Syria’s oil reserves are located. And the Syrian state media has taken to calling the YPG “PKK,” in an unusual shift in language where, previously, the same media boasted of arming and supporting the YPG in its efforts against ISIS and Islamist Syrian rebels.

Speculation that Erdogan may have cut a tactical agreement with Bashar al-Assad to facilitate mutually agreed deterrence against the PKK and YPG follows media suggestions that Putin gave Assad advance warning about Turkey’s plans.

The question therefore becomes: If a deal was struck, what did Assad and Putin get?

Many Syrians suspect that in exchange for gaining a sphere of influence in northern Syria, including Aleppo, Turkey will acquiesce in the regime and its proxies’ regaining control over more strategically vital areas of Damascus and Homs, which are the provinces that connect the national capital to the coastal region of Tartous and Latakia. Tartous is home to a decades-old Russian naval supply base and Latakia is home to Khmeimim military airbase, constructed a year ago in anticipation of Russia’s aerial intervention in Syria to bolster the regime.

Two recent episodes within this corridor seem to substantiate such a thesis.

After bombarding the Damascus suburb Daraya for months with barrel bombs and incendiary weapons akin to napalm, capturing farmland and destroying crops, the regime proclaimed victory last Friday as it expelled some 5,000 rebel fighters and their families following a negotiated truce.

Then on Monday the regime declared a cease-fire in al-Waer, a neighborhood in Homs with a far bigger population—the Syrian Opposition Coalition estimated 80,000—and on Wednesday began talks on a similar deportation.

Local officials in Moadamiya, which is close to Darayya and which was hit by chemical weapons in August 2013, following a year-long starvation siege, also began talks with the regime Wednesday. A Moadamiya spokesman, Dani Qappani, said there are 45,000 civilians trapped in the town and possibly 2,800 fighters.

—with additional reporting by Duygu Guvenc.