The Obama administration has assiduously avoided US military engagement in Syria. President Barack Obama is wary of the pottery barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” Supporting Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Syria would be a strategic mistake, making the United States a protagonist in Syria’s civil war.
Vice President Joe Biden went to Ankara last week on a mission to repair US-Turkey relations. Upon arrival, Biden learned that Turkish Special Forces, tanks, and fighters with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were invading Syria, targeting Jarablus near the Turkish border.
Biden endorsed Turkey’s “Operation Euphrates Shield.” He also claimed that the US provided air power. However, eyewitnesses say no bombs were actually dropped on Jarablus.
Slipping into Syria’s quagmire is not in America’s interest. Nor is being played by Turkey.
Operation Euphrates Shield violates Syria’s sovereignty. Supporting Turkey would make the US complicit in Turkey’s land grab.
Turkey keeps pushing south. It has no intention of relinquishing territory. To justify its presence, Turkey will populate a Syrian enclave for refugees.
Turkey wants a seat at the table of the Geneva peace process. It seeks equal standing with Russia and the United States.
Given Turkey’s sordid history supporting Islamists, it will be more difficult to negotiate an end to Syria’s conflict with Turkish troops on the ground.
The Obama administration has been giving weapons and air support to the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), Syrian Kurdish forces numbering 40,000. The PYG is America’s most reliable ally against ISIS. Washington will continue to support the YPG if it fights ISIS east of the Euphrates.
Erdogan abhors US cooperation with the YPG, which he calls a terror group. Erdogan wants the US to make a choice between Turkey and the YPG, but was repeatedly rebuffed.
The Obama administration must be steely-eyed about Turkey’s intentions. Erdogan says the primary purpose of Operation Euphrates Shield is to fight ISIS. This is patently false.
Turkish-backed Islamists never engaged ISIS in the so-called battle for Jarablus. Before invading, Ankara made a deal with the Islamic State. Rather than resist, ISIS forces simply changed into FSA uniforms. Jarablus was “liberated” from ISIS with barely a shot.
Unlike Falluja and other battles where ISIS used civilians as human shields, civilians were evacuated from Jarablus. The Islamic State does not want civilians to identify newly clad FSA members as hard core ISIS fighters.
It is not surprising that Erdogan and ISIS made a deal. ISIS and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) are ideologically aligned. They are both branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite official denials, there is a mountain of evidence that Turkey provided weapons, money, and logistical support to Islamists in Syria beginning in 2014. Turkey also underwrote the Islamic State by transporting its oil and selling it on the international market. About 500 Islamist fighters are still transiting from Turkey to Syria each month.
According to Erdogan, Euphrates Shield was aimed at the YPG and “terror groups that threaten our country.” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pledged that Turkey would “do what is necessary” to keep Kurdish fighters east of the Euphrates River. Turkey announced plans for a safe zone 90 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, stretching from Jarablus to Marea, deep into Kurdish controlled territory.
In fact, Turkey is trying to prevent the YPG from establishing a contiguous Kurdish territory that would make Rojava a reality. Erdogan fears that Rojava’s existence will inspire Kurds in Turkey to intensify their demands for greater autonomy.
Erdogan’s hostility towards the Kurds is no secret. He insists that the YPG and PKK are the same, even though the US Government says they are distinct.
It was predictable that Turkey would drop the pretense of fighting ISIS and focus its operation on the PYG. The Obama administration knows what’s going on.
A senior Pentagon official told CNN: “The Turks never cared about Jarablus until the Kurds wanted to get there.” Special Envoy Brett McGurk called Turkey’s targeting of the PYD “unacceptable and a source of deep concern.”
US-Turkish relations were already on the rocks because of Turkey’s wholesale crackdown on oppositionists after the failed coup of July 15. The relationship is further challenged by Turkey’s decision to go after America’s allies in Syria.
Turks are increasingly restless. They welcomed Operation Euphrates Shield, which restored the military’s credibility after the coup. They were told the operation targeted their two nemesis — ISIS and the YPG/PKK. Now Turks are growing concerned about the end game. How long will Turkish troops stay in Syria and what will they accomplish?
The term “October surprise” is used to describe an event just prior to the US presidential election, which is the work of a foreign foe. This time, the October surprise came in August with Turkey’s invasion of Syria.
Obama must guard against manipulation. Providing military and diplomatic support to Turkey’s invasion and occupation creates a conundrum, vexing his successor.
Syria will be Erdogan’s Waterloo. The US Government must not be tethered to Turkey’s sinking ship.
(David Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the US Department of State under President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His forthcoming book is titled – Turkey: An Uncertain Ally. This commentary was originally posted on Huffington Post.)