US and Turkey differ over post-ISIL strategy in Syria

Ankara and Washington disagree which Syrian opposition groups should fill the vacuum after ISIL fighters are ousted.

Turkey and the United States have agreed to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a stretch of territory in northwest Syria.

But there is uncertainty about this campaign. There is no agreement on which Syrian opposition groups will fill the vacuum once the area is cleared.

Turkey seems to have an answer – a Syrian Turkmen force that cooperates with small Free Syrian Army units in the area.

Abdul Rahman Mustafa heads the opposition Syrian Turkmen Assembly. He is also from Jarablous – a border town occupied by ISIL.

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Mustafa, who is now based in Ankara, says they should be partners in the campaign because ISIL occupies their villages.

“Right now, after the agreement between the US and Turkey, this region is much more important than before. Clearing the area from ISIL is now on the agenda,” Mustafa explained.

“The region should be under FSA control and the forces who are mainly Turkmen are from the area.”

Jarablous is along the last stretch of territory ISIL holds along Turkey’s border with Syria. The armed group’s presence extends further south to the countryside of Aleppo province.

Competing alliances

The Syrian Kurdish fighting force, the YPG is positioned just a few kilometres from Jarablous, and commanders said they are able to advance towards the town.

The YPG is a partner of the US-led coalition and air support allowed the group to recapture territory from ISIL in many areas in the country’s northeast.

But Turkey does not consider the YPG as partners in the campaign.

The group now controls more than half of Syria’s border with Turkey and Ankara is concerned about the Kurds’ plan to carve out their own state in the area.

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It is not just that. Turkey along with many Syrian Arabs and Turkmen have accused the YPG of ethnically cleansing areas they capture.

“We are not just fighting ISIL but the YPG as well,” Mustafa says. “The YPG changed the demography in the village of Tel Abyad and we believe they will try to do the same in Azaz and Jarablous.”

The YPG has categorically denied these accusations and instead accused Turkey of using the war against ISIL to target the Kurds instead.

Difficult position

Turkish officials are now making it clear the decision to allow US jets to take off from its territory does not involve helping what it calls a “terrorist organisation”.

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“This has already been brought to the attention of the US. Within this context, giving air support to the YPG, as [US State Department Spokesman John] Kirby stated, is not one of the elements of our agreement with US,” the foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said.

The US is in a difficult position. It has been facing difficulties finding partners on the ground. It has only been working with Syria’s Kurds who have been leading the fight against ISIL.

There is a powerful opposition alliance in Aleppo battling both ISIL and the Syrian government. But it includes the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front and the coalition won’t work with them.

There is a Turkey-US agreement to train and equip a moderate rebel force, but months after it was signed, fewer than 60 men are in the programme because of strict vetting requirements by Washington.

And now there are reports that some of those US-trained fighters have been abducted by Nusra, hours after they crossed into Syria.

While there is a deal to take on ISIL in the northwest, there is still much uncertainty surrounding the operation.

Source: Al Jazeera