In Depth

Turkey attacks US allies in Syria after Trump ‘green light’

US president under fire from his own party for abandonment of Kurdish allies

Confusion, indignation, and fear reigned on Wednesday in northeastern Syria, as Turkish armed forces launched a widely-expected offensive into territory controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces who only recently fought alongside US troops in the fight against Islamic State.

During a phone call between the pair on Sunday, US President Donald Trump reportedly gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the “green light” for a Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria.

US forces were urgently evacuated from the area on Monday, and yesterday, the Turkish military began Operation Peace Spring, with aerial and artillery bombardments of key towns. “Turkish howitzer fire then hit bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia,” Reuters reports.

Late yesterday, The New York Times carried the news that, after about six hours of bombardment, “Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies crossed the border, opening a ground offensive.” Civilians are reported to be fleeing in their thousands.

Trump’s decision surprised even his own administration and defence officials, drawing anger from both Republican allies in Congress and the international community, who accused him of abandoning Kurdish allies in the battle to defeat Isis to the mercy of a deeply hostile Turkey.

Trump denied the accusations, tweeting that “in no way have we abandoned the Kurds”, whom he called “special people and wonderful fighters”.

Speaking to Christiane Amanpour on CNN yesterday, Gulner Aybet, a senior adviser to Erdogan, was unequivocal that her president was aligned with his US counterpart: “President Trump and President Erdogan have reached an understanding over precisely what this operation is,” she said.

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An assault against Isis or Kurds?

A spokesman for Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun, writing in The Washington Post yesterday, called for international support for Turkey’s offensive. Kurdish members of the SDF could join with Turkey in the fight against Isis, claims Altun, or not, “in which case we will have no choice but to stop them from disrupting our counter-Islamic State efforts.”

“This is not a move against the Kurds. Turkey doesn’t have any problem with the Kurds,” said İbrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s right-hand man, yesterday. Instead, he claimed, the objective is to take responsibility for the fight against ISIS.

This stated position would represent a marked shift from long-stated Turkish policy to eradicate the SDF due to its links with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. “It’s plain this abrupt change of tack was influenced by the uproar in Washington that followed Trump’s decision,” reports The Guardian.

Indeed, most analysts claim fighting a largely defanged Islamic State is not Turkey’s priority. Instead, says Reuters, they have two long-standing objectives in the area, “to drive the Kurdish YPG militia which it deems a security threat away from its border, and to create a space inside Syria where 2 million Syria refugees currently hosted in Turkey can be settled”.

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