In Jarablus, a Chance for a Better Turkish Policy against ISIS

The Turkish government is the most important external, pro-opposition actor in northern Syria. It will remain involved in the Syrian conflict despite concurrent political instability within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Yet the war has undermined US-Turkish relations, due in large part to disagreement over the strategy to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), and the United States’ military partnership with the Kurdish majority Democratic Union Party (PYD). This disagreement has hindered plans to take the critical Manbij pocket – ISIS’ only remaining territory along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey objects to any anti-ISIS operation that involves the PYD’s militia, the YPG, owing to the latter’s link to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a Kurdish insurgent group fighting for political autonomy in southeastern Turkey. If the YPG captures the Manbij pocket, it will connect its territory in northeastern Syria with Afrin – a small, as yet isolated largely-Kurdish territory in northwestern Syria. Turkey would see YPG control over this contiguous border area as a threat, arguing that the group could conduct terrorist attacks from and establish a de facto state in this territory. Turkey’s opposition to any YPG participation in military operations west of the Euphrates River, including the Manbij pocket has prevented the YPG from taking ISIS-controlled Manbij, some 10 miles west of the YPG-held front line near the Tishreen Dam on the river.

While the United States has tended to embrace the PYD as a partner in the effort against ISIS, the Turkish government favors a different anti-ISIS strategy: creating a separate, Arab-majority force, culled from anti-regime opposition elements already entrenched in the pocket. The problem, however, is that the last time these groups took and held territory from ISIS along the northern border was 2014. More recently, in April, insurgents backed by Turkey captured ISIS areas in the Manbij pocket, only to lose them shortly afterward, despite enjoying direct Turkish artillery support and continued US airstrikes in the area.  

The United States has its own red-lines, refusing to work with Turkey’s most important insurgent partner inside Syria, Ahrar al-Sham, on the grounds of its links with Al Qaeda. The United States and Turkey have managed to find ways to cooperate tactically however, providing direct military support to groups seen as far enough removed from both Ahrar al-Sham and the YPG. The United States appears to be committed to the YPG, east of the Euphrates, but remains interested in working with Turkey to identify a common set of Arab majority rebel groups to do the fighting in the Manbij pocket.

In recent weeks, there have been also signs of Turkish-US cooperation against ISIS in the Manbij pocket. Turkish Special Forces (SOF) recently carried out their first overt operation in Syria, prompting a series of US airstrikes on ISIS held positions. The pairing of US airpower with Turkish SOFs is a potentially effective option for rolling back ISIS along the Turkish border, as detailed in one of the authors’ recent piece for MENASource. As the US-led anti-ISIS campaign moves forward, questions remain about the composition of the “hold force” however, which will be tasked with defending territory along the Turkish border and further south towards Syria’s M4 highway.

US-Turkish cooperation depends on local groups having more political agency with local populations than their current ISIS rulers. A smaller, more representative force, therefore, could leverage the effects of US airstrikes to rapidly take and successfully hold territory in the Manbij pocket. This plan requires that the local force seek out conflict with ISIS, drawing fire from front line ISIS positions so that US surveillance platforms can identify front lines, and pass that target data to aircraft for strikes.  

Despite the strategy’s potential, US-Turkish negotiations about the composition of this proposed hold force have slowed the offensive against ISIS, allowing it to retain its foothold in northern Syria. From this territory, ISIS continues to fire rockets at the Turkish city of Kilis, while Turkish members of the group have managed to continue to cross the border to carry out suicide attacks. The continued ISIS presence in the pocket also hinders efforts to liberate Raqqa, the caliphate’s capital city.

Looking beyond expected SOF-centric operations to retake the border town of Al Ra’i, there is a potential for greater Turkish involvement in the Manbij pocket, under US and coalition aircraft air cover. A Turkish ground incursion into the Manbij pocket—focused on taking and then holding the ISIS-held border city of Jarablus—could hasten the war against ISIS, as well as manage the US-Turkey relationship. It would constitute a significant military blow to ISIS, while essentially drawing the Western boundary of YPG expansion, per both US and Turkish restrictions. Such a military operation would be part of current coalition air operations, and therefore require US and coalition aircraft (including from Arab partners with strike aircraft at Incirlik) to give air support to Turkish ground forces. It would also rely on the principle of de-confliction with Russia to avoid potential military escalation.

On the political level, this operation would create a fact on the ground – the military presence of a key state supporter of the anti-regime opposition on Syrian territory. This could help empower the opposition representatives in negotiations with the regime and strengthen the local legitimacy and appeal of Arab-majority insurgents fighting ISIS with Turkish and US backing in the pocket. It could also put pressure on regime elements to agree to a meaningful political transition in Syria. Such action would also require Turkey to lift its veto on the inclusion of the PYD at concurrent Syrian peace talks, a policy that has hindered the inclusion of the Syrian Kurds’ most powerful groups at the negotiating table. This will not happen unless Turkish concerns about PYD territorial expansion are addressed, or Turkey makes an effort to reach accommodation with some semblance of Kurdish empowerment along its longest land border. To facilitate the latter of these two requirements, the Turkish government should revisit its own current conflict with the PKK in Turkey’s southeast and negotiate a mutually agreed upon – and announced – ceasefire with the PKK. The Turkish/coalition presence in Jarablus would be tied to the fate of the peace talks, and would end once a transition government was agreed upon.  

The course of the war in Syria has severely constrained Turkish options, while the United States risks its relationship with a NATO ally if the YPG is used as the ground force to close the Manbij pocket. To alter these dynamics and hasten the defeat of ISIS, the United States and Turkey should explore a joint operation, dependent on Turkish ground forces and coalition air power. Jarablus presents one such opportunity, but the principle of identifying overlaps of Turkish and US interests and exploiting them relentlessly is a sound basis for a more effective anti-ISIS strategy.

Aaron Stein is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Faysal Itani is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Aaron Stein and Faysal Itani

Image: A U.S. Navy seaman directs an E/A-18G Growler to the catapult on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the U.S. 5th fleet area of operations, May 28, 2015. The Theodore Roosevelt supports Operation Inherent Resolve, including carrying out strike operations in Iraq and Syria. (US Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Petrosino)