Turkish Offensive Against Islamic State into Syria Signals Limit to Kurdish Expansion

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Turkish Special Forces (ANKA photo)

Turkey launched its largest offensive to date into Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL if you like to bother everybody) held territory in Syria on Wednesday in a combined air, armor, and special operations campaign to take the border city of Jarabulus.

The timing of the United States-backed operation coincides with Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Turkey which is occurring at a particularly fractious time in Turkish-American relations.

In July, an attempted military coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been blamed by many Turks on the Americans. Allegations that the US allowed a Turkish Air Force refueler to take off from the US controlled Incirlik Air Base that refueled Turkish F-16s involved in bombing government buildings, and a bizarre conspiracy theory involving American one dollar bills being found on a number of Turkish officials linked to the Gulenist movement credited with the coup are in part responsible for the souring of relations between the two NATO allies.

The Syrian offensive is nominally in response to a suicide bomb attack on a Kurdish wedding in Turkey on Saturday, killing 54. But it may also be a message to the United States that it is still willing to cooperate on regional security issues. The US recently warned Turkey that its purge of Gulenists from the military would hamper the campaign against IS. Wednesday’s offensive suggests that Turkey is showing the US that it has not.

More importantly, the Turkish offensive signals that Turkey is serious about not allowing Kurdish forces to maintain contiguous territory along the Turkish border.

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A representation of Kurdish held-territory in Syria (Thomas van Linge graphic)

By intervening in Jarabulus on behalf of non-Kurdish Syrian rebels, they are preventing the Kurds from crossing the Euphrates River at the Turkish border and putting a stop to the western expansion of Rojava (Kurdish Syria) toward Kurdish-held Afrin District, northwest of Aleppo.

The US backed the Turkish offensive with air support and has agreed to not support any Kurdish operation on the city.

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned the Kurds directly that if they did not remove their troops east of the Euphrates River and away from the Turkish border, “We will do what is necessary.” Turkish armed forces have had no qualms with bombing Kurdish forces in the past.

It appears that if the US is supporting Turkey over its Kurdish allies on the limits of the borders of Rojava, it is unlikely the Afrin Canton of Rojava will be linked with Rojava proper to the east. But this may turn out to be an important step for the Kurdish hope of self-determination and statehood: after all, two major powers just de facto recognized a border.

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