Syria Has Reached ‘Game Of Thrones’ Level Of Complexity As Turkey Invades

A more empowered Erdogan administration ordered its forces to strike into Syria on Wednesday. Ground combat elements crossed the Turkish-Syrian border in an attempt to “cleanse” the area of ISIS while also making sure that any vacuum these operations create is not filled by Kurdish militia fighters who have been making big gains along the border in recent months. In fact, they have seized at least seven villages in the area in recent days alone.

The bulk of the operation included Turkish special forces, backed by armor and air support, working with anti-Assad Arab and Turkmen rebels in and around the border town of Jarablus. The city had been occupied by ISIS and was a major outpost along the Turkish-Syrian border. Clearly, this had major security implications for Turkey, which has suffered from ISIS attacks.

Fighting was light. Most of the ISIS foot soldiers and their lieutenants were thought to have fled south before Turkish forces entered the town, which Turkish and rebel forces now occupy. If Turkish forces caught ISIS by surprise, they could have discovered a trove of intelligence, especially relating to how ISIS passes materiel and personnel into Turkey.

The name of this operation is Euphrates Shield, and Ankara shows no sign of withdrawing its forces. In fact, this could just be the first move in a long Turkish ground campaign in Syria.

A Turkish tank rolls into Syria., AP

Vice President Joe Biden met directly with President Erdogan yesterday. It was the highest ranking US-Turkish diplomatic mission since the coup attempt against Erdogan on July 15th, and the reception was chilly. But Biden’s visit was nevertheless a huge show of support by the US for the almost ousted and increasingly totalitarian Turkish head of state. Biden stated after the meeting:

“I think the Turks are prepared to stay in an effort to take out ISIL as long as it takes . . . I think there has been a gradual mind shift . . . in Turkey, with the realization that ISIL is an existential threat to Turkey.”

Erdogan and Joe Biden meet face-to-face. It was the highest level meeting between the two long-time allies since the coup attempt on Erdogan a month ago., AP

=The US fully supports Turkey’s ground incursion into Syria, the first of its kind since Syria fell into deep unrest half a decade ago. US aircraft were said to have supported Turkey’s ground operation in Jarablus. The problem is that Turkey does not run these types of operations against ISIS alone, but they also take the opportunity to put the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and its militant factions in their crosshairs as well, just as they did when they initially and seemingly reluctantly entered into the anti-ISIS fray by joining the US-led air campaign about a year ago. On the first day of those operations Turkish F-16s attacked ISIS and Kurdish targets, throwing the operation under a single unifying “anti-terrorism” label. It appears that Operation Euphrates Shield will be no different.

The PKK and the Turkish government, especially the Erdogan regime, are bitter and long-standing enemies (you can read all about this complex conflict here). Just today a car bomb ripped through a Turkish Police headquarters in the tense northeastern Turkish border town of Cizre. 11 Turkish officers were killed in the blast. The PKK is said to have taken responsibility for the attack, claiming it was retaliation for atrocities it claims Turkish security forces executed against the people of Cizre during crackdowns. The UN is working to investigate the deaths of some 100 people who are said to have been burned alive while huddling in a basement during a Turkish security operation in the city.

A bomb blast claimed by the PKK killed 11 Turkish police in the conflicted border town of Cizre., AP

Operation Euphrates Shield also signals a fairly large shift in US allegiances, one that is clearly in Turkey’s favor. For some time now the US has become increasingly tighter with YPG, PYD and YPJ units, the militant arms associated with the Kurdish PKK, sending in special forces to train, support, and advise these hardened fighters in their operations against ISIS. Arms have also flowed toward these relatively poor groups as they have been proven to be among the most effective soldiers at fighting ISIS.

Now with Turkey pushing into Syria, the Kurds, who hold large amounts of the territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, are put under direct threat. The fact that the US has gone as far as supporting the Turkish ground incursion into Syria directly with aerial assets is a big tell that Washington is willing to endanger its relationship with the Kurdish militia forces in Syria to keep the US-Turkish relationship from crumbling.

Kurdish forces affiliated with the PKK move through the Syrian countryside in technicals. , AP

In the weeks following the coup attempt on the Erdogan administration, Turkey has pivoted away from the US, even blaming it for the events of July 15th. Meanwhile the once very cool relationship with Russia following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian Su-24M attack jet in November have rapidly thawed. Even the possibility of Russia being invited by Turkey to use Incirlik Air Base alongside the US has been floated. As a result, real questions about Erdogan’s commitment to NATO and the long-running US-Turkey relationship have surfaced. Even America’s nuclear arms stored in Turkey have become the subject of a major strategic policy debate.

Apparently, the US made some sort of deal with Turkey whereby it would use its influence among the various Kurdish militias to keep them from advancing west along the border with Turkey, especially near where Turkish troops are operating. In exchange Turkey would not mount a full offensive against them. This lasted just over a day as Turkey let loose a barrage of artillery shells on Kurdish fighters it said were advancing towards their position from about half a dozen miles away.

Obviously Turkey fears that the power vacuum in Syria will allow Kurdish forces, who have been super-charged by US backing, to create an autonomous enclave along the Turkish border. This puts the US in a strange place where they have to tell the fighters they are backing and who are so effective at routing ISIS to not capitalize on the momentum they have gained, basically commanding them to operate against their own interests and that of the people they are fighting for.

Turkish artillary sits at the ready along a ridge., AP

During Biden’s visit with Erdogan the Vice President made it clear that the Pentagon has instructed Kurdish forces it works with not to advance west of the Euphrates River and that these militias would lose the support of the US if they did. The fact that this order was not followed, at least according to Turkey, is a sign of how limited Washington’s power actually is when it comes to controlling the maelstrom of forces that it supports in the Syrian conflict. Although, it should be no surprise that a country mortgages much of its command and control capability when fighting a war via a hodgepodge of proxies, each with its own unique set of motivations and cultural, religious and ethnic alliances and grudges.

Russia clearly is non plussed by the idea of Turkey setting up shop on the ground in Syria. Doing so directly threatens the Assad regime, which Russia backs, and which has made some serious progress itself when it comes to taking back control on large swathes of territory in recent months. Not only did the Kremlin condemn the move, but they abruptly cancelled a key high-level meeting between military officials in Ankara.

Turkish tanks staging along the Syrian border., AP

Now we will have to see exactly what cards Turkey plays next in Syria. Do they plan on exiting the conflict once their Arab and Turkmen sponsored fighters have embedded themselves in deeply in Jarablus, or is the Turkish military going to bed down there and look to expand deeper into Syria with more proxy fighters by their side? If so, Russia surely will not take such a strategy well.

Meanwhile the US seems to once again be drawn to Turkey’s military might and regional influence regardless of how it may affect the more humble array of allies they have assembled to fight against ISIS in Syria. Endangering the support of those who have proven to be loyal and terrifyingly effective anti-ISIS fighters to appease and get the support of Turkey may prove to be a fatal mistake for the US when it comes to its strategy in Syria. Especially considering how unpredictable a far more powerful and independently minded Erdogan administration may become.

A Turkish armored fighting vehicle on the roll., AP

Above all else, Turkey’s surprise push into Syrian territory, and the rebel fighters they have assembled to help them do so, is yet another complication to an already mind-numbingly complicated affair. The spiraling Game of Thrones-esque Syrian power struggle is so variable that it makes implementing an actual strategy to eliminate ISIS and stabilize the country nearly impossible to execute. There are simply too many cooks in the kitchen, all of which seem to be making a different dish.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.