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Proposed eastern Euphrates operation ‘existential’, but not to Turkey

Dec 19,2018 - Last updated at Dec 19,2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ramping up rhetoric against the US for its sponsorship of Kurdish fighters battling Daesh in Syria. His objective is to force President Donald Trump’s administration to allow Turkey to drive the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from a zone 15-20-kilometres-deep and 400-kilometres-long on the eastern side of the Euphrates River.

The Pentagon responded by warning against "unilateral military action", a "matter of grave concern" and "unacceptable" but did not reveal how Washington would act if Turkey attacks. The European Union adopted a similar stance. NATO seem to be powerless to deal with its errant member. No red lines have been drawn.

To make matters worse for Syria, US envoy James Jeffrey declared that Washington's relationship with the Kurds is "tactical" and "transactional". He stated, "We don't have permanent relations with sub-state entities:" the US supports Kurdish forces to fight Daesh.

Riyad Dirar, co-president of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Council that administers the Kurdish-held area, stated, "The US hasn't given us any assurance regarding a possible Turkish operation."

Meanwhile, loyalist Turkish commentators are beating the drums for military action. Ibrahim Karagul, a star columnist for the daily YeniSafak, has compared the fight against the YPG with the World War I "battle of Canakkale", the peninsula known in the West as "Gallipoli", where Ottoman forces trounced a combined force of British, French, Australian, Indian and New Zealand troops. While tens of thousands of the invaders were slain, a quarter of a million Turkish and Arab fighters were killed. The battle led to the Turkish independence war and the declaration of the modern Turkish state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Karagul has portrayed the promised offensive as a battle "for the survival of Anatolia, for the defence of the region a century [after Canakkale]... [and] a Canakkale mission" to defeat the former Western colonial powers and their local allies. YeniSafak boasts a host of commentators calling for the launch of the operation which they see as an existential battle in the regional struggle for power between Western and local actors.

Once occupied by Turkish forces, the wide band of Syrian territory would be de facto annexed by Turkey, which would take over its administration, connect it to Kurdish utilities and trade with its merchants. This is what has happened in Afrin, the district of Syria's Aleppo governorate, which was occupied last year by Turkey and its surrogate Syrian "National Army", comprised of disparate rebel and fundamentalist groups.

Washington remains wary of tackling Turkey. Last year, the US did nothing when the Turkish army and allied Syrian forces expelled the YPG from the north-western Afrin district in Syria's northern Aleppo province. There was little criticism of Turkey when 130,000 of Afrin's 230,000 mainly Kurdish inhabitants were driven from the district. Kurds are expendable. They have since been replaced with radical fighters and their families, who took refuge in Afrin after losing the battle for towns and villages in Eastern Ghouta, the countryside east of Damascus.

The YPG-dominated coalition, dubbed "Syrian Democratic Forces", briefly suspended operations against Daesh during October following Turkish shelling of the town of Ain Al Arab/Kobani in the Kurdish-held border zone called "Rogava". Even this pause permitted Daesh to recover and regroup in southeast Syria, near the Iraqi border. It took until last Friday for US-backed Democratic Forces fighters to seize Hajin, the last village held by Daesh in eastern Syria.

An all-out Turkish operation against the YPG would once again enable Daesh to reassert itself in eastern and south-eastern Syria. There are an estimated 10,000 Daesh fighters in this region, half of them Europeans or Arabs, plus their families. Daesh commander Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is also believed to be in hiding in southeast Syria, which is largely uninhabited desert.

Fifteen thousand fighters of Turkey's surrogate National Army are said to have completed preparations for an offensive and it is reported that the Turkish army has removed a wall erected along the border in order to provide access for tanks, troop carriers and infantry.

If launched, the offensive would open with cross-border shelling and bombing from Turkish artillery and warplanes operating from Turkish bases. Troops would advance on several fronts simultaneously: On Manbij on the western side of the Euphrates and Tel Abyad and Ras Al Ain in the east. The presence of some 2,200 US troops poses the only problem for attacking forces. The Turkish military, reportedly, plans to notify the US ahead of an assault on a specific area so US soldiers can evacuate to safe ground. It is unlikely they will fight alongside their erstwhile Kurdish allies.

Kurdish General Mazloum Kobani asserted, "We are ready for any attack and will respond strongly within our areas. Till now, our diplomatic efforts aim at deterring this." Whether they succeed or not will depend on the undependable Trump administration.

It is certain that the YPG, a force of experienced and dedicated fighters, will fiercely defend its territory, forcing Turkey to mount a massive attack, involving warplanes, armour and thousands of troops. The Kurds and their Arab allies, recruited from tribal communities, will fight hard and long as they fear death and ethnic cleansing in defeat. While Erdogan's media allies portray the proposed eastern Euphrates operation as existential, this is an overstatement. It is existential, however, for the YPG and Syria's Kurds and their Arab partners.

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