Israel and US closely watch Turkish incursion into Syria

Turkish forces are attempting to carve out a security zone inside Syria by pushing back US-allied Kurds from the border. Israeli observers decry Turkish aggression.

By: Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News and AP

Intense fighting flared up Monday as Turkish troops and their allies advanced on a Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria, the third day of Ankara’s offensive to oust a US-allied Kurdish militia from the area, according to the militia and a civil war monitoring group.

Skirmishes between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters also broke out farther east in Syria, threatening to widen the scope of the new front in the Syrian war that pits Turkey against Washington’s main ally in the region.

“The US will back down in its support of Kurdish militias in Syria because Turkey is more determined than the Americans.” That’s the view of former Foreign Ministry Director General and former Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Alon Liel. Liel told World Israel News (WIN), “Turkey is coordinating its actions with Russia and they view the Kurdish controlled regions along their border as spoils of war.”

Liel says that the US is focused only on areas east of the Euphrates River where it has deployed thousands of US troops to fight alongside Kurdish militias that worked to defeat ISIS and continues to work opposing the regime of Basher Assad.

“Turkey views the Kurdish militias as ‘terrorists’ and they are coordinating their moves with Russia and not with the US,” said Liel. He told WIN, “They have absorbed 4 million Syrian refugees and this territory they capture will be used to transfer the refugees back to Syria for resettlement.”

The Turkish ground and air offensive on Afrin, codenamed “Operation Olive Branch,” began Saturday, raising tensions in the already-complicated Syrian conflict and threatening to further strain ties between Turkey and the US, both NATO allies. Turkey says it aims to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “secure zone” in Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave on its border.

Legitimate security concerns

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Turkey has “legitimate security concerns” about Syria. Mattis said diplomats are working on a solution to Turkey’s confrontation with the Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as the People’s Defense Units or YPG, who have been the key US military ally in battling the Islamic State in Syria. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group because of its ties to its own Kurdish insurgency.

The US has offered direct military and logistical support to a Kurdish-led group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces that spearheaded the fight against IS in Syria. With the near total defeat of IS in both Syria and Iraq, the US says it’s creating a 30,000-strong border force of existing Kurdish and Arab SDF members to ensure there would be no IS comeback.

That announcement has outraged Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to expand the operation, threatening to push farther east to the town of Manbij to the east, which the Kurdish fighters had liberated of IS militants in 2016 and currently administers. Erdogan said in Ankara that his country will “not take a step back” from its Afrin offensive.

‘Turkey, not the Kurds, is the problem’

Israeli journalist and researcher Dr. Jonathan Spyer told WIN, “The United States is assisting the Kurdish militia east of the Euphrates River. Neither the US nor the EU considers them to be terrorists and they have been fighting together against ISIS. Turkey sees them all as part of a PKK-linked terrorist insurgency.”

Spyer views Turkey, and not the Kurds, as the problem. “Long term, Turkey is becoming more problematic with its support of Hamas and harboring of active terrorists inside its borders. In the east there could eventually be a clash with the US as well. The Turks are determined to push the Kurds back from the border and create a security zone with a permanent presence inside this area and other areas along the Syrian border with Turkey,” Spyer said.

The Kurdish force said it considers Turkey’s offensive a “flagrant hostility” to all Syrians that would distract from the fight against the extremists and help them flourish. In a statement, the Kurdish fighters said Afrin will be a “quagmire” for the Turkish army.

Observers say Turkey has mobilized about 10,000 Syrian fighters to storm Afrin, with some stationed in Azaz, on the eastern edge of Afrin and others to the south in Atmeh. There are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Kurdish fighters in the enclave, home to about 800,000 civilians.

Turkey encroaches on Kurdish territory

Afrin council president Hayvi Mustafa told the Washington Post, “Three months ago, I was sitting here in my office with my colleagues, celebrating the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s fighters were vanquished by our own Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the help of our American allies. We had great hopes that day: Eliminating the security threat meant that we could finally begin investing in education and social services.”

“Today I am sitting in that very same office, listening and watching as Turkish jets bomb us and artillery shells our homes. We are getting calls from local officials warning that Turkey is pushing deeper into our territory, perhaps even hoping to take the city of Afrin itself.”

“Erdogan wants to destroy this freedom; his forces have already killed 18 innocent civilians. Though ostensibly a US ally, Erdogan is not ashamed to use jihadist groups to eliminate Afrin as a democratic alternative. Not only did Erdogan allow al-Qaeda to grow along Turkey’s border with Idlib, but he has also coordinated with al-Qaeda to facilitate the entry of the Turkish troops into our region. Erdogan doesn’t fight al-Qaeda — he works with them.”

Spyer agrees with Mustafa saying, “The Kurds in Syria have created what is the most peaceful and well managed part of that war-torn country. As an Israeli I can’t help but feel sympathy for the Kurds. I have visited Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria and Turkey for over a decade. Many of the forces that have been most determined to oppose Israel are those who oppose the Kurds. We have similarly motivated pan-Arab and pan-Islamic enemies.”