U.S. And Turkey: United Against ISIS
Joint operations could prove a watershed in the fight against ISIS in Syria
When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford visited Ankara in August, in the aftermath of an unsuccessful but violent military coup there, it marked a modern nadir in U.S.-Turkish relations. Government-backed media outlets and some senior Turkish officials directly accused the U.S. military of masterminding the coup. Dunford’s counterpart General Hulusi Akar, the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, had been taken prisoner by the coup plotters and held for hours with a gun to his head. Dunford visited a Turkish parliament building that was partially destroyed by bombs from a U.S.-made F-16 fighter flown by renegade Turkish pilots.
In Dunford’s meetings with General Akar and other senior Turkish officials, the question of whether the venerable U.S.-Turkish alliance could survive the crisis hung over discussions. When Dunford and Akar met Friday in Croatia, the two generals were able to offer a resounding “Yes!”
Not only are U.S. air and Turkish ground forces engaged in a joint offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Syria, but for the first time the U.S. military had just sent a detachment of Special Operations Forces to work alongside Turkish troops in Syria. Some experts believe the joint U.S.-Turkish offensive called Operation Euphrates Shield could prove a watershed in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
“Clearing ISIS from the Turkish-Syrian border is an important step forward in terms of cutting the supply lines to the group’s stronghold in Raqqa, and if the United States can somehow keep Turkish forces, Syrian Kurdish forces, and [largely Arab] Syrian Democratic Forces focused on ISIS instead of shooting at each other, it could be a game-changer,” said Jenny Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. U.S. Special Forces are already working with the Syrian Kurdish troops of the People’s Defense Forces (YPG), she notes, so embedding them alongside Turkish troops in Syria may be a way to keep an eye on both sides and de-conflict them. “The United States is trying to keep this alliance together by the sheer force of its will, and if it’s successful this could be a turning point.”
Ironically, the unsuccessful coup in Turkey may have set the stage for Operation Euphrates Shield. For more than a year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reportedly pressured the Turkish military to develop plans for an incursion into Syria, meeting stiff resistance from a Turkish officer corps that was already fighting Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. After a coup that claimed more than 200 lives, Erdogan purged thousands of officers from the ranks, sweeping aside that resistance. One of the most senior Turkish generals who opposed a Syrian operation was reportedly Brig. Gen. Semih Terzi, head of Turkish Special Forces and a prominent plotter who was killed during the coup attempt.
The United States had long opposed the idea of a Turkish offensive into Syria. Officials suspected Ankara’s real target were the Kurds of the YPG, which had proven the strongest U.S. proxy in Syria. After a U.S.-backed operation against ISIS forces in the northwestern city of Manbij this summer however, these Kurdish militias had begun to consolidate their control of territory west of the Euphrates River.
Anxious to repair a partnership with a key NATO ally that had been left in tatters by the attempted coup, U.S. officials dropped their objections to a Turkish offensive. On a visit to Ankara last month, Vice President Joe Biden told the Kurdish militias to pull back east of the Euphrates River or risk losing U.S. support. For their part, Turkish officials ceded to President Barack Obama’s demand to stop insinuating that the United States was behind the coup attempt.
“U.S.-Turkish relations have been terrible as both sides have argued for years over who was most to blame for Syria, but after the coup both sides saw an opportunity to work together to clear ISIS from the border area,” said Aaron Stein, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “That’s symbolically important. Both as a model for U.S.-Turkish joint operations, and as way to create a buffer zone around the border area that excludes ISIS, that’s a very positive development.”
The question now is whether U.S. and Turkish officials can build on that cooperation. It remains unclear whether Turkey is willing to participate in the anticipated offensive to retake ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, for instance, probably sometime next year.
“The U.S. probably overcame its resistance to attaching Special Forces to Turkish troops because it wants to be present on the ground to keep its disparate allies in Syria in their separate lanes,” said Stephen Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Having said that, having a big, NATO ally willing to put forces on the ground in Syria that we can support is a very good thing from the U.S. perspective.”