As Turkish tanks rolled across the border into Syria apparently supported by US warplanes, Western newspapers echoed the official line from Turkey that the twin goals of the incursion were to “clear Islamic State militants from their remaining border stronghold, and roll back recent advances by Syrian Kurdish militias.” The White House called the incursion “an indication of important progress” in the campaign against ISIS. Meanwhile, Biden ordered the Syrian Kurds back across the Euphrates and threatened to withdraw American support if they failed to comply. “In return, the United States got something it has pushed for in vain for years, getting Turkey to take a more proactive stance” against ISIS. What is spin and what is reality?
To begin with there was simply no need for US air support. Both because Turkey has plenty of airpower of its own and because Jarabulus was absolutely deserted. ISIS had already fled, as US intelligence was well aware. No shots were fired. The prominence given to close US air support was instead a signal to Putin and Assad. The idea being that this was a joint US-Turkish operation, so don’t even think about resistance. The same concern was behind the timing of the operation which coincided with Kerry’s visit to Turkey, as well as Kerry’s very loud pronouncements of absolute support for the incursion. Forcible alterations of the territorial status quo are never a trivial matter, even if the target state has lost de facto control of the territory in question; especially so because the United States has been staunchly opposed to forcible territorial change in Ukraine, Georgia, the Senkaku islands, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
US warplanes have acted as the Syrian Kurds’ airforce for years; most recently in the recapture of Manbij a week before the Turkish incursion. At that point, Turkish officials said they expected the Kurds to go back east across the Euphrates. Preventing the Kurds from unifying the two Syrian Kurdish statelets into a single contiguous Syrian Kurdish de facto state along the border has been a consistent Turkish policy goal. There are two reasons for this. One is that unifying Rojava, the Syrian Kurdish region along the border, would be big symbolic victory for the Syrian Kurds that is likely to embolden Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. The second, more important reason, is that Kurdish control of the Syro-Turkish border would effectively close the rat line.
The rat line is the principal pipeline through which foreign fighters, money, weapons, ammunition and supplies flow to the Syrian rebels. From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkey has been indiscriminate in regulating this flow. With the evaporation of the moderate opposition, almost all of this flow has ended up in the hands of jihadists. It is what keeps the rebellion against Assad alive. Without the rat line, much of the armed opposition would not survive for very long.
If the Kurds were to gain effective control over the Syrian side of the Syro-Turkish border, they would come to enjoy a veto over the rat line. They would immediately try to shut down the flow to non-allied rebels. That would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Syrian war against Turkish and Saudi proxies. Turkey, of course, cannot tolerate such a scenario.
The Policy Tensor believes that such a scenario is manifestly in the US interest: It goes furthest towards stemming the threat of Salafist Jihadism; the only identifiable US interest in Syria. The Obama administration instead frames the US interest in the context of the US’ geopolitical rivalry with Russia and Iran. Thus, the interests of allies become US interests. So we find the United States providing logistics for Saudi terror bombing of Yemen and diplomatic cover for the Turkish intervention in northern Syria backed by US security guarantees.
It is often claimed that the United States needs access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, which is portrayed as “a key nexus in the campaign against the Islamic State.” The United States can use air bases in Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Baghdad-controlled Iraq and Erbil to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State. Many of these are closer than Incirlik to ISIS territory and all of them are close enough. The US can also use naval platforms in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The claim doesn’t even pass the laugh test.
In going out of its way to support the Turkish incursion, the US is seeking to gain leverage against Russia as it negotiates a great power settlement in Syria. Ultimately however, the United States will throw the rebels under the bus. And we can expect it to do that with as much spin as it has just deployed to protect their lifeline.