After years of having to deal with Turkey as a factor in Syria, the U.S. has brought in a new tactic. On 27 November, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced that U.S. forces are establishing observation posts in Northeast Syria along the Turkish border.
The stated purpose of this project is to “deny escape routes” to Islamic State fighters fleeing Syria into other countries. Spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, Army Col. Sean Ryan laid out the Army’s plan to Pentagon reporters. “These observation posts will provide additional transparency and will better enable Turkey’s protection from ISIS elements,” Ryan said. Over the past several months, ISIS militants have collected around the middle of the Euphrates River valley. This puts them in an easy position to cross over into Turkey to the north. According to DoD sources, the project is unfolding with “close consultation and collaboration” with Turkey, both at the military and diplomatic levels.
Defense Secretary James Mattis gave a rationale for the project similar to Ryan’s. “Turkey, a NATO ally, has legitimate concerns about terrorist threats and from where they’re emanating,” Mattis said. “We don’t dismiss any of their concerns.”
Read Between the Lines
The Trump administration’s narrative for the observation post initiative is essentially an effort to protect Turkish territory. The massive defeats suffered by the Islamic State in Syria over the past two years have pushed the remaining ISIS threat to areas that now endanger America’s Middle Eastern “NATO ally.”
While there is certainly weight to this claim, any rational assessment has to also take into account America’s “big picture” considerations in dealing with Turkey.
The U.S. has long been playing a complicated game in Syria, a country that became the battleground for a wide range of belligerents, each with their own interests and goals, from Russia, to Israel, to al-Qaeda.
One of America’s more pressing challenges in Syria has for years been maintaining ties with their Kurdish allies, who have been indispensable in combating ISIS, while not overly offending the Kurds’ arch rival, Turkey.
In January, the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds spread into Syria itself, when Ankara launched a military campaign into the country to root out Kurdish bases. The operation drew intense criticism from the U.S. administration. As the fighting between the Turkish army and Kurdish militias intensified, Secretary Mattis told reporters that “the violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area in Syria and distracts from the international effort to defeat Daesh.” Turkey was not perturbed. Earlier this month, the administration was alarmed that a second campaign was being planned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
U.S. officials understood that there was a need to switch gears. If Turkey was insistent in being involved in Syria, then at least America should be in a position to mitigate the effects of that involvement. Commanders set out to create a framework for joint military operations with the two countries. The cooperation between Turkish and American forces centers around the northern Syrian city of Manbij. There, the Turkish-U.S. alliance in the Combined Joint Patrols (CJP) allows forces to continue to deny terrorists access to the area. According to the Pentagon, the CJP has become a “thriving community” (read: a success in keeping a watchful eye over Turkish activity in Syria).
The observation posts project is the next step in clamping down on Turkey’s Syrian aspirations. It is no wonder why leaders in Ankara are not at all at ease with the development.