Why Turkey sent tanks into Syria
Let's get to this quickly. No way am I going to try to do an in-depth commentary on what's going on in Syria; that would take an entire book and I expect in the future it will be the subject of several.
But I did want to make a quick comment on news which I expect you heard and came as I was preparing this show: On August 24, Turkey sent tanks and troops into northern Syria. The purpose, or at least the claimed purpose, which was surely a good part of the purpose but just as surely not all of it, was to support a Syrian rebel force in pushing Daesh - that is, ISIS - out of the town of Jarablus, which was the last stronghold ISIS had on the Syrian-Turkish border.
The push was also supported by the US-led coalition - which means by the US - which conducted eight airstrikes as part of the operation, signaling US support for the Turkish incursion.
Within hours, the so-called Free Syrian Army, one of the many Syrian rebel groups and one backed by Turkey, had captured the town.
But why did Turkey act now? Writing at Foreign Policy magazine, Faysal Itani of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council noted that Turkey's war on ISIS has been "inconsistent" and suggests that something more than striking a blow against ISIS is involved.
That "something more" is why I wanted to raise this now, even before the dust has settled.
A senior US official told CNN that the US's assessment is that Turkey's cross-border action is not so much about stopping ISIS as it is about stopping the Kurds. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, which is backed by the US, played a major role in driving ISIS out of the northern Syrian town of Manbij in mid-August. From there, the YPG, the military arm of the Democratic Union Party, looked to move on Jarablus, about 40km, or 25 miles, north.
And that, the US official said, is when Turkey got interested. "The Turks never cared about Jarablus until the Kurds wanted to get there," the official said.
The thing is, the PYD and the Turks share a common enemy in ISIS - but Turkey regards the PYD as a terrorist group and says it is linked to Turkey's own Kurdish insurgents, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, against which Turkey is now pursuing a scorched-earth policy in southeastern Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will never allow a Kurdish-held area along its border.
So sum up: The US, Turkey, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, are all fighting ISIS in Syria. The US supports the PYD, which some have called the single most effective force against ISIS in the conflict. However, Turkey, which is also a US ally, regards the PYD as a terrorist group linked to an internal group in Turkey which Ankara also labels as terrorist.
Looking at those sorts of conflicting alignments, Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent, calls the Turkish incursion "a gamble in a dangerous game."
Turkey can act against ISIS, he wrote, "but if this is a mask for an assault on Syrian Kurds then it will be opposed by both the US and Russia," because not only does the US support the PYD, Russia has been appreciative of the Kurds' cooperation with the Russian air campaign in Syria. So an assault on Syrian Kurds could well have unknowable effects on the region.
And indeed, even while Turkey fired artillery at ISIS in Jarablus in preparation for the ground attack, it also shelled Kurdish fighters north of Manbij to hinder or block their movement toward Jarablus.
The Turkish foreign minister says his country wants the PYD to return to the east side of Syria's Euphrates River, which would mean not only forgetting about Jarablus, which lies on the west bank of the river, but leaving Manbij. "Otherwise," he said, "we will do what is necessary."
It is indeed a gamble in a place where, as Cockburn says, things are so complex that participants have great difficulty in telling who their friends are or even where their own best interests lie.
And that is always a dangerous place to be.
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