19 March 2018 08:13 PM



Turkey Sees Threat in US Plan to Raise Border Security Force (Targeting Syria)

Erdogan swears to ‘choke’ the new US force

The already tense relations between Turkey and the United States of America following the abortive coup against Turkish President Erdogan, worsened following reports that the US was planning to set up a 30,000 man force euphemistically christened “the Border Security Force”. In reality it was merely a conversion of the US backed YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. The YPG was the armed wing of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and considered terrorists by Turkey.

A detailed picture of what the US had in mind was provided by Colonel Thomas Veale the "Public Affairs Director at Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve". According to him the US planned to create a force which would control tens of thousands of square kilometres of Syria. It would be deployed along the frontier with Turkey to the north and the Iraqi border to the southeast. The force would also stand guard along the Euphrates River Valley facing the Syrian military. Arab members of the 30,000-strong "Border Security Force" would man checkpoints further south along the Euphrates river valley.

Given that the region was home to many different religions and ethnicities the plan sounded like the first move to partition Syria along sectarian lines with the Kurds looking after the Kurds, the Arabs running the non-Kurdish bits of the new enclave which would , in the north, run right along the Turkish border.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups were seeking to maintain autonomous control over large parts of northern Syria and the American plan was welcomed by them. A senior Kurdish politician Fawza Youssef had said that Kurdish-led regions of Syria were looking to the new U.S.-backed border force to protect them in the face of growing threats from Turkey and Damascus, stating that with no political solution in sight the risks for Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies remained high.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was furious and said Turkey would "strangle" the planned U.S.-backed force in Syria "before it's even born". He called it a “terrorist force”. Turkey had been warning that it was on the verge of launching an operation against towns in Syria controlled by the YPG, including the key centre of Afrin.

"Operation Olive Branch" had been launched and after the initial cross border bombardment Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that Turkish forces had crossed the Syrian border. Reports said Turkish tanks and troops were now fighting the YPG inside Syria. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the forces intended to create a security zone about 18 miles deep inside Syria.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis had said that Turkey had advised the United States ahead of its air strikes and Washington was in contact with Ankara. Syria had threatened to shoot down Turkish aircraft. Turkey said it had launched airstrikes at more than 100 positions belonging to Kurdish fighters. Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli had earlier said that Ankara was determined to destroy the YPG and all terror networks and elements in northern Syria even if the Afrin operation lasted a long time.

There had been demonstrations in Afrin against the offensive and the YPG said it was ready to confront Turkish troops and FSA terrorists. If they dare to attack, we are ready to bury them one by one in Afrin," a YPG statement had said. Prior to the Turkish onslaught the Americans had cautioned Turkey against undertaking the operation saying the focus should remain of eliminating the Islamic State completely –to which Canikli had replied that the threat of Islamic State had been removed in both Syria and Iraq and it was meaningless for the US to tell Turkey to focus on the Islamic State.

After the initial reports about the American plans to set up the new force and the furious Turkish reaction, the US Administration had tried to obfuscate. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that US officials “mis-spoke” about a plan to set up a 30,000-strong force in eastern Syria and owed Turkey an explanation. He told the media that the issue had been "misportrayed, misdescribed"…"Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,".

The Pentagon said it did not plan to create an army and that the force was aimed at fighters from the Islamic State group and maintaining stability in areas recaptured from the jihadists. The American word play had not assuaged Turkish anger. Turkey said it was not satisfied with Washington's attempts to allay its concerns and that Turkey’s "direct mistrust" of the United States continued.

"Did this satisfy us in full? No, it did not," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told CNN-Turk television in an interview. He said "The establishment of a so-called terror army would cause irreversible damage in our relations ... it is a very serious situation,".

Iran had put its finger in also saying that the planned Kurdish-led force would further complicate the conflict in Syria and was a "blatant intervention" in Syria’s internal affairs. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the visiting Syrian parliament speaker that the U.S. plan was a "plot" against Syria's territorial integrity and security.

Turkey's army chief General Hulusi Akar and spy chief Hakan Fidan had gone to Moscow for talks with Russian counterparts on security issues and Syria. But there was a sense that Russia did not want to get involved in a fight with the Kurds and might not help Turkish troops if they got into trouble in Afrin. The media reported Kerim Has, a lecturer in Turkish-Russian relations at Moscow University saying that Russia was not in Syria to solve the Kurdish issue. While initially Russia had denied reports of the withdrawal of its troops from Afrin, following the Turkish air strikes Russia’s Defense Ministry said that an unspecified number of Russian troops had been moved out of the Afrin area and redeployed. Russia, which backed Assad’s government, said it was watching developments “with concern” and called on the warring sides to “exercise mutual restraint”.

As part of the latest strategy on Syria Tillerson had said the United States could have an open-ended military presence in Syria to prevent Islamic State's resurgence, pave the way diplomatically for the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and curtail Iran's influence. He said a US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with an opportunity to reinforce its position in Syria. The Syrian government said that a US military presence in Syria represented an "aggression" against Syrian sovereignty, and vowed to free the country from any "illegitimate" foreign presence.

The historic animosity between Turkey and the Kurds represented by the Kurdish Worker’s Party meant that, as long as there was any suspicion in the Turkish establishment that the US would eventually do what it said it was not doing, the Turkish approach would take on an increasingly militaristic hue and Afrin could just be the beginning of a determined Turkish attempt to deal with the Kurds once and for all. American tinkering could possibly spark a new conflagaration in the region.