It is often invidious to draw historical parallels, but in the case of Turkey’s attack on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria, one parallel is justified: Nazi Germany’s claim to the Sudetenland in Czechslovakia in 1938, where Britain and France adopted a policy of appeasement. When Germany invaded Poland a year later, Britain and France were forced to declare war. And we all know what that led to.
The U.S. is now in a similar situation. When they met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, President Trump hailed Turkey’s President Erdogan as his new best friend, but with Turkey’s so-called “Operation Olive Branch” on January 20, matters took a different turn. Three days earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the prime objective in Syria was the defeat of ISIS and al-Quaida and that the U.S. would remain there until this was accomplished.
A week before Turkey’s incursion, the U.S.-led coalition in northeastern Syria, the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), announced the formation of a “Border Security Force” in the Kurdish-held areas east of the Euphrates and along the borders to Turkey and Iraq. Furthermore, half of this 30,000-strong force would consist of fighters from the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the backbone of which is the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Forces) militia. This has proved to be a staunch ally in the struggle against ISIS. However, as Turkey considers the YPG as inseparable from the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), this provoked a furious reaction from President Erdogan, who vowed to crush this “terror army.”
The U.S. immediately backed down and Secretary Tillerson declared, “Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all.” However, this “provocation” provided Turkey with the opportunity to attack Afrin, which because of its isolation is the weakest link in the chain. Although Afrin had been a peaceful enclave, Turkey invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter and the right to self-defense as justification for its attack. The Pentagon also turned its back on its YPG allies in Afrin and stated, “We are not involved with them at all.”
In a further attempt to appease Turkey, the State Department has confirmed that U.S. military cooperation with the YPG is temporary and tactical and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken of choosing “bad alternatives.” But the damage has been done. In what the Pentagon calls an “operational pause,” the SDF has transferred 1,700 fighters to Afrin to defend the enclave against Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) auxiliaries. Russia and Iran have not been slow to take advantage of the situation.
In Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates, where the SDF is sitting on about one-third of Syria’s energy reserves, the coalition has repelled an attack by pro-Assad forces and Russian mercenaries and a similar attack by pro-Assad Iranian forces was also repelled.
But the U.S. must harbor no illusions. Rather than being a long-lasting and strategic ally, Turkey functions as Russia’s proxy in Syria. Turkey’s first incursion into Syria, in Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, took place with Russia’s tacit support and drove a wedge between Afrin and two other Kurdish autonomous regions. The Afrin operation was also approved by Moscow and is intended to drive a wedge between Turkey and the U.S.
Apart from Afrin, the bone of contention is now the town of Manbij, west of the Euphrates, which was taken by the SDF in 2016 and acts as a redoubt in Turkish-controlled area. President Erdogan has made his intentions plain: “Today we are in Afrin, tomorrow we will be in Manbij, the day after we will be east of the Euphrates to clean up all terrorists all the way to the border of Iraq.” U.S. generals intend to hold Manbij, but Erdogan has threatened them with an “Ottoman slap.”
On February 15 Secretary Tillerson was foolhardy enough to meet with President Erdogan without an aide or translator and instead accepted Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as translator. Erdogan now makes the claim, which cannot be verified, that Tillerson offered to share control of Manbij with Turkey.
Erdogan has declared, “They have awakened a sleeping giant. Now no state or international organization can question Turkey’s power.” Turkey is building up a military-industrial complex, which can be a threat to its neighbours, Greece and Cyprus, so now it is incumbent on the U.S. to stop them.
Congress is considering using the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on Turkey to secure the release of American citizens held on trumped-up charges. In which case, it would be relevant to consider an arms embargo on Turkey, beginning, for example, with F-35 fighter jets. Force is the only language Erdogan understands and now is the time to send a message that can be clearly understood.