On September 15, 2016, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Turkey’s Jarablus Offensive.” The event discussed Turkey’s recently launched Operation Euphrates Shield, which liberated the city of Jarablus from ISIS control. Panelists included Bassam Barabandi, Political Advisor to the Syrian High Negotiation Committee; Nicholas Heras, Bacevich Fellow, Center for a New American Security; Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director, The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.; and Denise Natali, Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director of The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Kilic Kanat began the event by discussing Turkey’s recent movements into northern Syria under Operation Euphrates Shield. He said that there is limited knowledge of details about the operation, but we know that the operation was delayed and overdue; that the operation was originally planned for November 2015. The primary motivation for the operation, he outlined, was the removal of ISIS from territory along the Turkey’s Syrian border. Other motivating factors were the presence of YPG forces in the area and Turkey’s ongoing role in handling Syrian refugees fleeing toward its border. Turkish motivation to act against ISIS, in Kanat’s analysis, was precipitated by the numerous terrorist attacks that the terrorist organization has conducted on Turkish soil. Turkey’s attention on ISIS was briefly distracted in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt. Kanat also theorized that the coup attempt, and the resulting change in military leadership in the 2nd army division, played a principal role in the timing of the operation. Of concern for Turkey now, according to Kanat, is the tendency of ISIS to respond to territorial losses with organized and agile terror attacks.
Kanat also discussed the next stages for Jarablus and Operation Euphrates Shield. Early reports show that close to 10,000 Syrians have returned to Jarablus and the surrounding communities in the wake of the offensive. The Turkish government has, and will continue, to support these returnees with aid relief and essential services – such as health services and electricity. According to Kanat, the successful return of Syrians to the area has re-ignited discussions of a safe-zone in northern Syria. According to Kanat, the “depth of the area cleared is not sufficient” to keep ISIS off the Turkish border. A second consideration for Turkey is the future of Manbij, which he categorized as “unclear.” The FSA or indeed any forces will need air cover from the U.S. to effective undertake an offensive on al-Bab, he outlined. Kanat also pointed to Kurdish forces remaining east of the Euphrates river as a concern for Turkey. “As long as Kurdish forces remain prominent in northern Syria there will be clashes between them and Turkey,” he cautioned.
Nicholas Heras opened his remarks by saying that the U.S. has an opportunity to “benefit tremendously” from Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkey’s impact on the Syrian conflict, he said, can be a positive achievement in several ways. The first will be if the operation is positively assessed by the U.S. as a vehicle for enabling local campaigns to oust ISIS from its territory. The second will that that, if the U.S. allows it, Turkey will be able to create a de facto safe zone in northern Syria that will become a “no go zone” for Assad and the Russian government. The third is that the Turkish incursion lessens the likelihood that the U.S. will have to escalate its presence in the Syrian conflict, which is a benefit to all. The open question, Heras asserted, will be whether or not the Turkish constructed coalition can make Washington confident enough in its abilities for U.S. special operation forces to embed within it. This confidence shift is already taking place on the ground, he pointed out, in that Turkey and its partners were able to change the perception of the abilities of local Arab forces. He said that to continue this perception change, the U.S. needs to build the capacity of the force it backs, make moves that build and maintain its legitimacy, continue its military support for the groups, and be patient with the the operation’s objectives.
Denise Natali focused her remarks on the role of Kurdish actors in northern Syria. She highlighted the U.S. decision not to put ground troops into Syria, but rather to “rely on local partners to achieve its objectives.” The most important factor for the U.S. in choosing its partners, she said, was finding forces that were “willing to fight ISIS first and Assad second.”
Natali then discussed the direct and indirect consequences of the U.S. decision to back the YPG. The direct consequence was that Kurdish fighters gained a reputation as effective fighters. The indirect, or unintended, consequences were that U.S. backing “enabled the PYD to expand its territory by 186 percent and enhanced its credibility as an actor,” in the Syrian conflict. Where the U.S. failed in its partnership with both the Kurds and Turkey, she said, was in its failure to effectively communicate its expectations for each of the partnerships. She also said that PYD actions in recently captured territory has damaged local support for the organization. This has been precipitated by the “sense of entitlement and empowerment” they have gained from U.S. backing. Despite the partnership between the U.S. and the PYD, Natali does not believe that there will be a lasting cleavage in the U.S.-Turkish relationship. She says that U.S. reliance on the YPG is tactical, while its alliance with Turkey is strategical.
Natali suggested that, moving forward, the U.S. should try to better understand the lens through which Turkey perceives Kurdish actors in northern Syria. She said, “the more territory the YPG takes, the more it relies on the PKK to maintain it and this makes it a greater threat to Turkey.” The U.S. also needs to reaffirm the parameters of its relationships with both Turkey and the YPG. Finally, it needs to refrain from any mention of federalism or partitioning of Syria as a possible outcome of the conflict.
Bassam Barabandi outlined that, during the first few weeks of the revolution, no one was thinking about making space for minority issues, but rather they were focusing on the good of all Syrians. This, he said, has changed as a direct result of actions taken by the Assad regime. He said that Syrian Arabs approached the Kurds saying “the more you help us against Assad the better your chance of guaranteeing your rights” in the new Syria. However, the Assad regime continued to allow some level of prosperity in the Kurdish regions of the country, while their neighbors suffered. This deterred the Kurds from immediately joining the resistance. Barabandi lamented that the Syrian Arabs “never really received support from the U.S.” in the fight against Assad. He also said that Syrians have great sympathy for Turkey, who has stepped up to help so many Syrian refugees. In conclusion, he said that Turkey will probably be part of the al-Bab operation as well as the offensive on Raqqa.
In terms of Turkey’s Jarablus operation, Barabandi said that the Turks “failed to do what the U.S. spent $2 million trying to do.” Moreover, he said that the Jarablus offensive was welcomed by local Arabs, who have begun to join the movement. He also questioned how the PYD/YPG will be able to hold the territory it has taken without continued support from the U.S. Denise Natali chimed in on this comment, saying “who has taken territory [in Syria] now does not mean they will hold it in a couple years.”