Ankara (SCF) – During a Pentagon briefing last weekend, Secretary of Defence James Mattis dropped a bombshell by innocuously slipping in that the US military intends to set up a string of observation posts on the Syrian-Turkish border. Mattis implied that Turkey was on board and that the idea was for the two militaries to jointly prevent any terrorist threats to the US’ NATO ally emanating out of Syrian territories.
Turkish officials immediately tore into Mattis’ project. Defence Minister Hulusi Akar disclosed that he had warned US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford only a week ago that the observation posts would have a “negative impact” and create the impression that “US soldiers are somehow protecting terrorist YPG (Syrian Kurdish) members and shielding them.”
The move would make an already complex situation “much more complex,” Akar added. He said, “Nobody should doubt that the Turkish armed forces and the Republic of Turkey will take the necessary steps against all kinds of risks and threats from across its borders.”
On Tuesday, President Recep Erdogan lashed out against the US troop presence in eastern Syria, charging that plans to establish observation posts along the Turkish border are meant to aid terrorist elements. “Those who say they are countering (ISIS) in Syria are in fact allowing a small group of terrorists to exist in the country to justify their presence in the war-torn country,” he said.
Erdogan alleged that the US is actually showing a preference to “live and breathe with the terrorists.” “The only target of this terror organization (YPG)… is our country,” he said. “It’s not possible for us to remain idle against this threat.”
Clearly, what is unfolding is a US game plan to block Turkish military’s future operations in northern Syria against the Kurdish militia. Pentagon regards the YPG to be its most effective Syrian partner. Simply put, what we see here is the Syrian equivalent of what Washington did in 1991 in Iraq by imposing a “no-fly zone” over the Kurdistan region in the north.
The US is playing the long game. It is exactly three years since President Obama deployed 50 commandos to advise the Syrian Kurdish militia in their fight against the ISIS. Obama insisted it was “just an extension” of “special ops” that the US was running already. But the numbers steadily kept increasing – from 50 to 250, from 250 to 500, and from 500 to 2000. The true figure today is around 5000 – and growing.
Seth Harp at the New Yorker magazine noted after a recent visit to the US bases in Syria, “the mission has morphed into something more like a conventional ground war. The United States has built a dozen or more bases from Manbij to Al-Hasakah, including four airfields, and American-backed forces now control all of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area about the size of Croatia.”
According to reports, there are presently 17 military bases in northeastern Syria. Yet, the US Congress has not authorized military action in Syria, nor has UN mandated the use of force. The Pentagon’s so-called Operation Inherent Resolve comes under the authority of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, which means that “basic facts are kept classified, including the cost of the mission, the units involved, where they are located, and the number of wounded, which is believed to be substantial,” as Harp pointed out.
The intriguing part is about US intentions. The stated purpose of the Operation Inherent Resolve is to defeat the ISIS, but lately, it has shifted to countering Iranian presence in Syria. According to the US special representative for Syria engagement James F. Jeffrey, Trump has agreed to keep U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely. “We are not in a hurry,” he said.
Turkey’s worst fear may be coming true – a Syrian Kurdistan taking shape right along its border. Indeed, this becomes a template of the overall US strategy to encircle Turkey and Iran and to control Baghdad and Damascus – and eventually to make Russian presence in Syria untenable.
The US aims to put a knife into the heart of the Turkey-Russia-Iran axis in Syria by accentuating the contradictions in the region. The gloves have come off vis-à-vis Iran, Pentagon is now “defanging” Turkey and it remains to be seen how long the gloves will remain in place in the dealings with Russia.
In a candid interview with the Russia media on November 21, Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement Jeffrey sounded testy. He repeated that the deployment of S-300 missiles to Syria is a “dangerous escalation” – “we would urge the Russians to be very careful with this” – and assertively spoke of the new sanctions against Iran and Russia for oil shipments to Syria, while also rejecting offhand any talk of tradeoffs with Russia over Iranian presence in Syria and debunking the Astana process. Jeffrey even reserved the US military’s right “to exercise our right of self-defense” if Russian forces on the ground came in the way. (Jeffrey disclosed that there have been military engagements with the Russians so far in “about a dozen times in one or another place in Syria.”)
Pentagon will press ahead with the establishment of observation posts on the Syrian-Turkish border despite Ankara’s objections. Turkey’s hour of reckoning is approaching. A few days ago, Turkish media reported that Saudi and UAE troops had deployed to northern Syria. In early November, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus.
The US and Israel are pressing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to fund the Syrian Kurdish militia and help create proximity between the Kurdish and Arab tribes inhabiting northeastern Syria with a view to create a unified Kurdish-Arab militia that becomes a Syrian bulwark against the two non-Arab regional powers Turkey and Iran.
To quote from a prominent Saudi commentator in the establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat, “The Americans are now establishing Syrian Kurdish militias as a striking force against several parties and this revives the hopes of the Syrian opposition that it has an opportunity to resume its fighting activities after it has lost most of what it gained of villages and territories during the civil war.”
Both Saudis and Emiratis are once again at the US’s bidding in Syria. These Gulf States no longer hide their association with Israel. They are reciprocating the US-Israeli help to shove the Khashoggi affair under the rug.
This post originally ran on Strategic Culture.
Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.