Jarabulus: Another Escalation in the War between Turkey and the Kurds

by Robert Olson

On August 24, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, an attack on the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Jarabulus, a small town located on the Turkish-Syrian. While Turkey has had troops on the Syrian side of the border for some time, the attack on Jarabulus and on some of its surrounding territory marks an important escalation in Ankara’s participation in the U.S.-led war against IS, which Turkey first joined in July 2015 after agreeing to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik air base to strike IS targets in Syria and Iraq. This agreement also allowed Turkey to heighten its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The escalation in Jarabulus targets the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is closely affiliated with the PKK.

Turkey’s mission in Jarabulus, in support of anti-Assad rebel forces, will likely be open-ended, much like the ongoing deployment of Turkish forces in Bashiqa in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)-controlled part of Iraq. Turkey will now likely move to establish an IS-free zone, some 70 miles long and 30 miles deep, on the Syrian side of the border. Such a project has been bruited about for some years, and has been supported by U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. This zone would be used to aid in the liberation of Aleppo, much like the Turkish forces in Bashiqa would aid in the liberation of Mosul.

Ankara and Washington: On the Same Page?

Murat Yetkin, editor of The Daily News and a respected analyst of Turkey’s politics, reported on August 27 that the Jarabulus attack had been planned as early as August 12, when Turkey told the U.S. that it would not join the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a 35,000 man army comprised of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Armenians, but dominated by the YPG (its non-Kurdish forces are estimated at only three to four thousand), in the war against IS. Turkey said in no uncertain terms that it would not cooperate with the YPG, as Ankara considers it a terrorist organization like the PKK. It reminded the U.S. that it too considered the PKK a terror organization.

According to Yetkin, Turkey won the argument, and Washington agreed on August 12 that it would consider Ankara’s request to attack IS and drive it out of Jarabulus and surrounding territory without stipulating how far into Syria the Turkish army might go. When the SDF began to march toward Jarabulus after conquering Manbij, the Pentagon gave the green light for Turkey to attack Jarabulus. Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey on August 24 confirmed this agreement when Biden announced in Ankara: “We have made it clear to Kurdish forces that they must move back across the [Euphrates] river. They [YPG] cannot and will not get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period.” Immediately after Biden’s remarks the YPG declared that it would not pull back across the river, but it has since been reported in Western media that the SDF has withdrawn. The disposition of YPG forces in the area still appears to be in flux.

In his article, Yetkin stressed that the Turkish-backed forces were soldiers of the FSA. Cengiz Candar, writing in Al-Monitor on August 26, agreed with Yetkin that the invading forces were largely composed of FSA fighters and reported that “most of the FSA fighters were brought into Jarablus from across the Turkish border” and that “most of the FSA groups involved in the operation are Salafists composed of Arabs and Turkmens, trained and logistically supported by Turkey” He also wrote, “If IS comes back or if the Kurds do not retreat east of the Euphrates and move to the area between Manbij and Jarabulus, Turkey could be obliged to maintain its military presence in the area.” If this were to occur, there could be an escalation of fighting between Turkish and YPG forces.

Targeting the Kurds

As mentioned above, the U.S. supports Turkish operations in the Jarabulus region and might well support a Turkish-controlled IS-free zone stretching from Jarabulus to the Kurdish canton of Afrin, effectively thwarting efforts by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPD) and the YPG to create a continuous Kurdish-controlled corridor along the entire Syrian side of the border.

Spokespersons for the Syrian Kurds as well as for the PKK have argued that Turkey’s intentions are to destroy any possibility that the Kurdish regions of Syria (Rojava) would obtain a viable autonomous status upon the conclusion of the civil war. Murat Karayilan, executive committee member and PKK commander, charged that Turkey’s attack on Jarabulus was not so much a military operation but rather an agreement Turkey made with IS against the YPG and by extension the PKK, saying, “The target of this operation is not ISIS or any other groups, but rather the Syrian Kurds.” He further charged that, under this alleged agreement, the IS commanders in Jarabulus had fled in advance of the Turkish operation while the IS fighters there had simply rebranded themselves as Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and remained in the city:

As we saw in the past, Al-Nusra members can join ISIS within a day. They do this transfer in groups, not individually. They just change their banners. In this sense, ISIS commanders left Jarablus in advance and local cadres joined Al-Nusra. ISIS had taken Jarablus in a similar exchange. So there is not conflict or war here, just an agreed-upon exchange. The ISIS members there are now in Al-Nusra, and the known ISIS commanders withdrew to Al-Bab. What is happening is an exchange rather than a military operation. The reports on clashes are manipulative lies.

Karayilan also warned that Europe would be affected by this supposed Turkey-IS arrangement:

With this agreement, ISIS guaranteed its access to Europe and the rest of the world. The main problem of ISIS is to have access to the rest of the world, so that its members can go to Europe, the Caucasus and the rest of the world. ISIS and Al-Nusra have always been intertwined. Al-Nusra will now control the Turkish border and ISIS will be able to use the border anytime its members travel though Istanbul. As part of this agreement, ISIS handed over the area of Jarabulus to Rai to Turkey and FSA-affiliated groups. These groups are under the influence of Al-Nusra.

The YPG and PKK might well be very busy fending off further assaults by the Turkish armed forces. Recent reports in Turkish media suggest that it was Gulenist officers who were the most opposed to Turkey’s invading Syria to take on IS. It is alleged that “certain commanders within the military worked to stall Turkey’s plan to move” against IS…and, of course, against the YPG. The report alleges that it was Special Forces commander Semih Terzi, who was in command of operations along the Syrian border and was killed in the coup attempt, who strongly opposed invasion. Terzi was replaced by current Special Forces commander Zakai Aksakalli, who is now in charge of Operation Euphrates Shield.

If the reports are accurate, then both the YPG and the PKK have substantial challenges ahead.

Photo: Turkish tanks participating in Operation Euphrates Shield (Source: YouTube)

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.


One Comment

  1. Thank you for this well-informed analysis. All along, President Erdogan has been more concerned about the establishment of a semi-independent Kurdish enclave in northern Syria creating a continuous Kurdish area from Iraq right up to the Mediterranean than about fighting IS. It seems that during his meeting with President Putin, Erdogan received Putin’s blessings in moving against the Kurds and he also seems to have forced the United States to agree to his move against the YPG that was America’s best ally in fighting against the IS, as evidenced by Vice-President Biden’s warnings to the YPG. The failed coup has given Erdogan a good excuse to act in a more assertive way in Syria and against the Kurds. He has also grown closer to Iran and is paying another official visit to Iran shortly. Although it would be too strong to describe the Russian-Iranian-Turkish cooperation as a strategic alliance, nevertheless, it is clear that Erdogan has moved closer to those two countries and has distanced himself from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

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