Again the big political story of the week just ended centered on Turkey and again the American media didn’t give it a lot of news coverage. Donald Trump is a world class buffoon and he garners a lot of readers/viewers/listeners but it is no wonder the average American knows so little of what happens outside the lower 48. What happened and its significance cannot be completely covered in a few hundred words but let’s look at it together.
On Wednesday Turkish tanks crossed the border with Syria in support of an effort by the Syrian Free Army to take the town of Jarablus from ISIS. Jarablus is less than a kilometer from the Turkish-Syrian border. Syria has been in a civil war since 2011 and Turkey is backing the anti-Assad forces of which the Syrian Free Army is a major component. Turkish warplanes also took part in the operation and its special forces were actively operating at the border. Remember the town is only about a half-mile from that border. The exact role of American forces is difficult to ascertain from available reliable reporting but this much is clear, they were not physically in the lead. Military intelligence may or may not be the same story and that will not be public knowledge for some time, perhaps years.
Let’s look at the intersection of three other facts as we try to analyze Turkish motivation. On July 15th there was a coup attempt in Turkey. On August 9th Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin, This was Erdogan’s first trip outside Turkey since the coup attempt. The same day as Turkish forces crossed the border American Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Turkey and met with Erdogan. Confused? We just got started.
Many Turks, especially those on the political right wing, are angry with America (who some even say was complicit in the coup) for what they perceived as being slow to come to the support of the Erdogan regime and for sheltering a cleric that they claim was the mastermind of the operation. In the interest of relative brevity I’m not going to get into that right now. Biden’s visit at minimum unruffled a lot of very important Turkish “feathers”.
There was much speculation that Turkey had stayed out of Syria because of its fear of provoking the Russians who were providing air cover for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Did Erdogan get a limited “green light” from Putin in St. Petersburg?
ISIS didn’t just move into Jarablus last week. It is more than a coincidence that the Kurdish fighting force in Syria (People’s Protection Units or YPG) was close to taking Jarablus. The YPG and Kurds in general are looked upon as allies by the United States; in Turkey it is a completely different story. In fact Thursday Turkish forces fired on the YPG in northern Syria. The Turkish government views the Kurds as opposition especially domestically and wants the YPG to withdraw to the other side of the Euphrates River. The reality on the ground is that they have the military might to turn that request into reality. I would speculate that Vice President Biden is acting as a go between trying to make that withdrawal happen.
Interestingly the Turkish government has named this operation Euphrates Shield. As usual there are as many if not more questions than answers in the multi-level chess game we call the Middle East. What remains constant in my mind is that Turkey is the key to the outcome in the region.
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