Turkish forces to remain in Syria, Iraq for at least one more year: official


A Turkish soldier patrols near the Iraqi border. File photo

Turkey’s parliament on Saturday overwhelmingly approved a one-year extension of the mandate to deploy Turkish troops in Syria and Iraq.

The mandate was first approved by parliament in October 2014 and was renewed for another year in September 2015. It allows military action in Turkey’s two southern neighbors against Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists and other groups deemed by Ankara to be terror organizations.

The bill passed easily on the first day of the new session of parliament with support from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Long Fight

Binali Yildirim, the Turkish Prime Minister, said in a statement on Friday that Turkish troops will remain in Syria for as long as it takes to “eradicate terrorists.”

“We will continue our operations [in Syria] until we fully guarantee the security of life and property for our citizens and the security of our border. We will continue until Daesh and other terrorist elements are taken out,” the Turkish PM said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

The mandate’s renewal comes after the Turkish army and allied Syrian rebel groups stormed the city of Jarabulus and allegedly expelled ISIS militants last Wednesday.

However, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who recently liberated the city of Manbij from ISIS after nearly three months of clashes, said that ISIS handed Jarabulus to Turkey without any resistance.

Turkey has also vowed to continue fighting Kurdish rebels both in Turkey and in Syria, considering them a threat to the territorial integrity of both countries.

“From the beginning, we have been defending Turkey’s territorial integrity. We are also defending Syria’s territorial integrity. The aim of these terrorist organisations is… to form a state in these countries… They will never succeed,” Yildirim told reporters in Istanbul.

“We’re cleansing ISIS and other terrorist elements [in northern Syria] so people living there are not forced to leave their homes. But the problem has to be comprehensively handled at the EU level. Solutions are needed quickly,” he added.

According to local sources, the commander of Turkey’s Second Army Ismail Metin visited Jarabulus on Friday. The Second Army is responsible for securing Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who met President Erdogan in Ankara on Wednesday, said that Turkey was ready to stay in Syria “for as long as it takes to destroy ISIS.”

Bombing anti-ISIS Forces in Syria

The SDF reported on Monday that the Turkish army shelled their positions in northern Syria with heavy artillery.

Backed by the US-led coalition, the Kurdish-Arab SDF is regarded as the main force fighting ISIS in Syria.

Sharvan Darwish, an SDF spokesman, said on Monday: “The Turkish state officially supports Daesh and bombs the positions of the Manbij Military Council and its countryside in the northern axis of the defence positions at Sajur River.”

The Daily Sabah, a pro-Turkish government newspaper, claimed that Turkey hit both ISIS and ‘PYD targets’ (in reference to Kurdish forces) in northern Manbij.

Speaking to ARA News, Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, said that Turkey wants to prevent SDF advances against ISIS.

“Turkey has a vested interest in making sure that the SDF remains aware that nothing is sustainable in northern Syria without the Turks’ long-term buy-in,” he said. “This is their way of signaling that, without forcing Turkey to invest in a ground campaign in Syria.”

‘Grave for Erdogan Troops’

Meanwhile, the Kurdish-backed Shahba Council said that the town of Jarabulus will become a “grave for the criminal occupier Erdogan and his mercenaries.”

The statement is another sign of tensions between the SDF and the Turkey-backed rebels of the Euphrates Shield Brigades.

The SDF set up a council for the Shahba Region, which is currently under ISIS control,  in preparation for the region’s liberation. The SDF has set up similar councils for the northern border cities of al-Bab and Jarabulus.

However, Turkey now threatens to control parts of those areas after capturing Jarabulus on August 24. Turkey’s stated plan is to prevent the Kurds from connecting the cantons of Kobane and Afrin.

“Turkey is showing its expansionist intentions to occupy,” the Jarabulus Council said in a statement. “This is an attempt at renewing the 500 years of Ottoman occupation of Rojava and the Arab countries in the battle of Marj Dabiq.”

Turkey, Kurds and the Battle for Raqqa

US analysts say that the Raqqa operation, which is Washington’s principal objective in Syria, is now being hampered by the competition over northern Aleppo.

According to analysts, the battle for Raqqa will be complicated by the tensions between the SDF and Turkey-backed rebels. Turkey’s decision to fire on SDF positions near Jarabulus is a significant provocation.

“In the short term I think this complicates plans to take Raqqa, but the truth is the foundations for doing so were not in place anyway,” said Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Kurdish forces had no desire to do it, and Arab forces were unable to. Turkey’s involvement raises the urgency of grabbing territory for both the Kurds and Turkey’s rebel allies, mostly in Aleppo province. Raqqa will have to wait,” he told ARA News.

According to Itani, the recent statements of anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk show a shift in the US policy.

“His statements highlight the United States’ ongoing attempts to reconcile reliance on local Kurdish-led forces fighting ISIS with partnership with a NATO ally [Turkey] and its professional military, which is also fighting ISIS,” he said.

“This is an inherently unstable triangle because of deep and, frankly, irreversible Turkish-Kurdish hostility. Kurdish forces, in particular, are wary of a US-Turkish compromise that would marginalize the former,” Itani told ARA News.

“But Turkish involvement in Syria is not yet deep enough to eliminate the US need for the SDF, and may never be. So the balancing act continues for now,” he concluded.

Henri Barkey, director of the Mideast program at the Wilson Center in Washington, believes that the US backs Turkey for two reasons.

“By participating, it keeps a close eye on Turkish moves, including any against the SDF […] and by being there it takes away the Turks’ political arguments,” Barkey told ARA News.

Barkey claims that the aim is to help diffuse Turkish anger after the failed coup attempt. Turkey argued that the US did not condemn the coup strongly enough. Turkish authorities also criticized the US for hosting Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim leader whose movement was blamed by pro-government circles in Ankara for leading the coup.

“It will work if the US is very persuasive about limiting either side’s incentive to spark clashes,” Barkey said.

“Raqqa may not be the next target anyway; Mosul seems to be the one. The Kurds may not want to move against Raqqa given how costly the battle for Manbij was. Therefore the focus is likely to be on Mosul,” he said.

“More importantly, the YPG will want to test US commitments. In fact, Manbij may not have been a Kurdish target but rather the coalition’s. While Manbij helped the Kurds get battle distinction, it is the US that was more interested in Manbij because it is key strategically,” he said.

Nicholas Heras of the Centre for a New American Security also stressed the complications of the looming Raqqa operation.

“The trick for the US will be what to do about Raqqa. The Turks do not want the SDF to seize the city, but Turkey has shown no willingness to be the lead military force to take the city,” Heras said. “The Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have not either.”

“For the US, capturing Raqqa and showing that ISIS is on its way to collapse is the most important objective. If the SDF can stage the campaign to capture Raqqa before the Turks can mobilize their Syrian proxies to do it, the US will continue with the SDF,” Heras added.

“At this point in time, the status of Afrin [Canton] is more likely than not to be put on hold by the US,” the researcher said. “The United States only wants to advance the ISIS fight.”

Barak Barfi, a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, agreed that the Turkish entry will complicate the Raqqa operation when speaking with ARA News.

“The entry of Turkey into the Syrian conflict will have negative ramifications for any potential operation against the ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa,” he said. “The YPG [the leading member of the SDF] is now focused on a lurking battle with the Turks, not a distant ISIS threat. Local politics have finally caught up with the American campaign against ISIS.”

Source: ARA News & agencies

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