Northern Syria: where Erdogan’s mercenary army encounters only 900 US soldiers

The US government has promised not to forsake its allies in northern Syria. This promise could soon be put to the test, as Turkish President Erdogan is apparently planning a new invasion. And he has one of his greatest opponents as an ally.

This article was originally published by Die Welt on November 19, 2021. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

Weapons and ammunition have already been delivered. The troops are in position and on stand-by. “As soon as the military operation gets the green light, we will be ready for action in no time,” assured Major Youssef Hamoud a few days ago. He is a spokesman for the Syrian National Army (SNA). Since 2016, Turkey has let this mercenary force fight for it. The SNA has become an important tool in Turkey’s hegemonic foreign policy. Ankara is using the SNA in Syria, but its fighters are also said to be stationed in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus and Yemen.

This time, however, the Syrian militia faces a new mission in its homeland. At least this is what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in mid-October. The Turkish head of state declared that he was determined to get rid of the threat in northern Syria once and for all, in a direct warning to the YPG. The Kurdish militia is the Syrian offshoot of the Turkish PKK, which Ankara classifies as a terrorist group. Erdogan’s statement was preceded by a rocket attack that killed two Turkish police officers in the Syrian territories occupied by Ankara.

The announcement of another invasion is not just another propaganda show designed to divert attention from Turkey’s major economic crisis and boost the president’s declining polls. Erdogan has always delivered what he promised militarily.

It would be the fourth Turkish offensive in the neighboring country. Ankara occupied extensive areas of Syria along the border, one after the other, in 2016, 2018, and in 2019. This time the SNA mercenaries could occupy the 120-kilometer-long corridor between Tal Abyad and Jarabulus and thus close the last remaining gap in the border strip. In this part of Syria too, Turkey’s goal is to set up a 30-kilometer-deep buffer zone to prevent attacks by the Kurdish YPG on Turkish territory.

Source: Infografik Die Welt

For the new US administration under President Joe Biden, the Turkish plan is both a challenge and a litmus test. Two years ago, Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump gave Turkey the green light for “Operation Peace Spring”. In contrast, Washington now wants to “protect its allies”.

Together with the Kurdish YPG, the United States fought the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria for five years. Today they still hunt IS sleeper cells together in the north of the country. But will and can America offer protection to its allies? Or will they let them down, just as the US did in Afghanistan? After all, Biden has said he wanted to end “the endless wars” once and for all.

In Syria, the civil war will soon enter its eleventh year, and there is no end in sight. The US has a total of 900 soldiers stationed in the north of the country. This is not really a convincing force which impresses Turkey, which has the second largest NATO army, and its tens of thousands of mercenaries.

Erdogan takes no account of the United States

Erdogan has already proven several times that he pays little attention to American sensitivities. In 2017, for example, he bought the Russian S-400 missile system, and he is now planning to order even more armaments in Moscow – a blatant violation of NATO regulations. Following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, how Washington behaves in northern Syria, and thus positions itself in the region, is now closely watched.

This is of particular interest to Iraq, in which the US has been involved since its intervention in 2003. There the power struggle between pro-American and pro-Iranian forces is flaring up again. Both camps will closely monitor how the US acts in neighboring Syria.

In September, General Frank McKenzie of the US Central Command surprisingly traveled to northern Syria. There he met Mazloum Abdi, the Commander in Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the multi-ethnic military alliance made up of Arab, Syriac units, but also the Kurdish units of the YPG. General McKenzie assured his host that the SDF could continue to count on America’s support.

Just days later, Ilham Ahmed, a senior official in the autonomous region in northern Syria, sat down in Washington with US government officials. “They told me that the US will stay in Syria and not leave,” Ahmed said after the talks.

Also Read: Parallels between Afghanistan and Syria: “Germany always does ‘too little, too late’”

Northern Syria had heard such assurances before in 2019. That is, until the day when President Trump suddenly gave his approval for the attack by Turkey. “Today it’s different,” believes Kino Gabriel, the former spokesman for the SDF. Trump is no longer president and Syria cannot be compared with Afghanistan, something the Americans have emphasized several times.

Reassuring words and good intentions are one thing. But can the US really do something against a possible Turkish invasion? “They will not drop the YPG completely,” says Bastian Matteo Scianna, professor of military history at the University of Potsdam. “But it should be noted that previous attempts to persuade Turkey to show restraint were unsuccessful.”

In his opinion, the US is left with only few options. “Direct [military] action against the Turkish military, a NATO partner, is out of the question,” explains the 34-year-old co-author of “Blutige Enthaltung: Deutschlands Rolle im Syrienkrieg”, a book on Germany’s role in the Syrian war.

“Tightening sanctions against Turkey and withholding arms deals would be Washington’s likely response,” says Scianna. “Both of these things would of course be of little use to the YPG.” Because the Turkish intervention cannot be stopped with punitive measures alone. Yet another part of northern Syria would then fall under Ankara’s control. The SDF forces can only delay an invasion. They have no chance against Turkish drone technology.

Nothing works without Moscow

The US can only respond to an attack by Turkey. The decision-making power does not rest with the White House. “A new ground offensive is only possible with a Russian Sanctum,” says Scianna. Moscow intervened in 2015 in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime. The Kremlin’s soldiers are now stationed in northern Syria, controlling border areas where Turkey is likely to want to invade.

At the end of September, Russian President Waldimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan met in the holiday resort of Sochi on the Black Sea. They are fundamentally each other’s political opponents and their soldiers fight each other on the battlefields in Syria and Libya. But they manage to find each other at the negotiating table. “It’s a bizarre kind of collaboration which serves purely to project own power,” says Scianna. “One ignores conflicting interests, collaborates where possible and does so in confrontation with the West.”

What the two presidents negotiated in Sochi is not exactly known. But Ankara’s military preparations suggest that the Kremlin has agreed to such an offensive. According to unconfirmed information, Turkey would then be allowed to occupy the corridor between Tal Abyad and Jarabulus. However, the city of Kobane would fall under Russian control.

Another possible point of attack, according to the unconfirmed information, is Tal Rifat north of the industrial city of Aleppo. In return, Russia would get territories in Idlib province from Turkey. With their bizarre cooperation, Moscow and Ankara would once again set the course in Syria. The White House would only be left with the role of spectator.

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog. From the same author:

The Return of Terror: Osama Bin Laden’s Heirs

Iranian influence: Iraq’s bulwark against the Martyr-Myth

The man who frees enslaved Yezidi women from the clutches of IS

Iraq now belongs to Tehran’s henchmen – with fatal consequences

Iraq is threatened with the exodus of all Christians

When Kurds fight each other, Erdogan rubs his hands

The Crazy Monopoly Game between Erdogan and Putin

“You will burn in purgatory”