Analysts say the US president’s ‘erratic’ decisions abroad risks needed support from his political allies at home.
Ankara, Turkey – The withdrawal of US troops from the area around Syria’s northeast border with Turkey has set the stage for a military confrontation between Washington’s long-time Kurdish allies and fellow NATO member Ankara.
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement on Sunday that US troops would stand aside to allow a long-threatened Turkish military operation, Turkey is expected to send its forces across the frontier within days.
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While the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been extensively armed by Washington to lead the ground fight against ISIL, it lacks the armour, artillery and air power of a modern military force.
Turkey, which boasts the second-largest army in NATO, has all the attributes of such a power and its troops have gained experience through two previous operations in northern Syria, as well as decades of fighting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within its own borders.
The SDF is spearheaded by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – a group seen by Turkey as a “terrorist organisation” over its ties with the PKK – and controls about a quarter of Syria between the Euphrates River and the Iraq border.
Turkey has long talked about a military push into SDF-held territory to drive the YPG away from its border and resettle Syrian refugees – but it was discouraged by the presence of US forces, who allied with the SDF to break ISIL’s hold on the region.
While Ankara’s operation is now imminent, its plans could be hampered by the Pentagon’s decision on Monday to remove Turkey from the “air tasking order” in northeast Syria and revoke its access to surveillance intelligence.
Although this would make it more difficult for Turkey to coordinate its air operations, it would not make it impossible, according to Can Kasapoglu, security and defence director at the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
“Any setbacks in the use of heavy air power could bring about serious shortfalls and hardships for ground operations,” he said.
Kasapoglu outlined two options for Turkish air operations.
The first would be to ignore the US and carry out flights with F-16 and F-4 fighter bombers.
“In such case, the Pentagon would find itself in an even harder situation of deciding between scrambling fighter jets to intercept a NATO ally’s aircraft … or allowing its ‘airspace closure ultimatum’ to be inevitably rendered abortive,” Kasapoglu said.
The other choice would be to use armed aerial drones to back up ground troops, although these would not be able to carry the heavy weapon payloads of manned aircraft.
For months, Turkey has reinforced its Second Army, responsible for defending its southern borders, along the frontier with SDF-controlled territory, including elite, battle-hardened units.
The 20th Armoured Brigade is likely to spearhead the push into northeast Syria, according to Kasapoglu, with the main advance expected at the town of Tel Abyad.
“From Tel Abyad, the offensive would initially advance westwards, following a direction of attack towards the Euphrates River,” he said.
Turkey is also expected to mobilise its Syrian militia proxies, who could attack from the Manbij area, west of the Euphrates, to join up with the cross-border operation.
Low and open plains
In August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, which saw it clear most of northern Aleppo province of ISIS and YPG fighters in coordination with Free Syrian Army rebels by the following March. The same forces early last year seized the Kurdish canton of Afrin, in northwest Syria, after a two-month campaign against the YPG.
With the landscape of Syria’s northeast comprising low and open plains well-suited to armoured and mechanised units, analysts said a potential battle would seem to offer a swift victory for Turkey.
“It will be easier than Euphrates Shield,” said Selim Sazak, research director at Ankara consultancy TUM Strategy, referring to the Aleppo operation. “Not only is the terrain less tough but there is not the worry about ISIS moving into areas cleared of the YPG.”
Analysts also pointed out that even though the SDF gained a lot of experience after fighting ISIL, whenever they were faced with air raids, tanks and heavy artillery – as in Turkey’s previous Syria operations – they were swiftly overrun.
“There are two options for the SDF,” Sazak said. “Either fight tooth and nail or not at all. I don’t envision a prolonged medium-intensity fight. It will be a flash or they will retreat.”
Kamal Alam, a London-based military analyst on Turkey and Syria, agreed the operation should not present any serious difficulty for Turkish forces.
“Turkey should not have any problems due to their superiority in air power and artillery,” he said.
Kasapoglu agreed that Turkey had the capacity to “blitz” its opponents with the campaign “likely to register swift achievements” if backed by sufficient air support.
Despite the Turkish military superiority, the SDF possesses weapons such as anti-tank guided missiles and man-portable air defence systems.
The SDF has also gained significant battle experience over its year-long campaign against ISIL, backed by US air power, artillery and special forces.
The group’s leadership reacted forcefully to the threat of a Turkish operation, warning it would “not hesitate to turn any unprovoked attack into an all-out war”.
Javelin anti-tank missiles, in particular, could present a threat to Turkish armour, Kasapoglu said, while air missiles such as the Russian SA-18 pose a risk to aircraft, especially helicopters.