Just days after the U.S. presidential election, newspapers allied with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) published stories alleging that elements of the U.S. government would conspire to prevent Donald Trump from governing. Trump, the consensus in the pro-government media held, was a better choice for Turkey: As a billionaire who is outside of the Washington mainstream, he is above influence from members of the Gulen Movement, some of whom gave money to Hillary Clinton’s super-PAC.
The AKP’s de-facto leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was among the first to congratulate President-elect Trump, reportedly inviting him to Turkey to “reset” a relationship filled with tension over Turkish authoritarianism and disagreements over Syria. Trump has signaled that the incoming administration will make considerable changes to the current American strategy in Syria. In preparation, the AKP is busy creating “facts on the ground” for the incoming administration. Turkey is using military force to achieve two interlinked objectives: slow the offensive for Raqqa and take the city of Al-Bab, in order to prevent the linking up of Kurdish-held territory.
These twin efforts have prompted considerable diplomatic outreach to Turkey, both to gauge Ankara’s ultimate intent and to ensure that Turkey and its allies don’t clash too heavily with the Syrian Kurds, an outcome that could spark an expansion of the Syrian civil conflict and harm the U.S.-led air war. These diplomatic efforts, however, only manage a problem that continues to fester. The incoming Trump administration will inherit an air and ground war against the Islamic State that is going well, but a Syrian civil conflict that has grown more complex, partly as a result of Islamic State losing territory.
President-Elect Trump and Turkey’s Presence in Syria
During the campaign, Trump and his surrogates articulated a number of different approaches to Turkey, ranging from criticism of Turkey’s approach to Islamic State to, just recently, repeating the Turkish government talking points about the failed July coup attempt and praising Ankara’s commitment to the war against the Islamic State.
The Turkish government recalibrated their Syria policy last June, signaling its intent to create a “buffer zone” along the border. On August 24, the Turkish government sent troops across the border, first to the city of Jarablus before advancing to Dabiq and then turning south towards Al Bab. At the time of writing, Turkey and its allied Arab and Turkmen insurgent forces are just outside the city and appear poised to begin an assault. To support this operation, informed sources have told me that the Turkish military has increased the number of forces in country, although the total force still appears limited to special operations units from Bolu and Tunceli, who are fighting alongside an armored brigade. The increase in the number of Turkish troops will help to compensate for the weaknesses of the Turkish-allied insurgent groups.
Presuming that the Islamic State chooses to defend the city, the urban terrain could offset Turkey’s advantage in firepower. The Turkish military could pound urban positions with artillery and forward deployed tanks, before giving the green light for allied groups on the ground to begin the assault. This approach would be similar to the Turkish military’s previous operations in the southeast, where Ankara used similar tactics to take back control of towns lost to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its youth militia, the YPS. This strategy results in considerable damage and civilian casualties but could drive down Turkish and allied deaths. In these battles, Turkish Special Forces had trouble clearing the YPS and embedded PKK advisers from entrenched positions in urban terrain to what they will find in Al Bab, a fact that could portend a protracted fight. At the same time, credible reports have emerged suggesting that the bulk of the group’s forces are withdrawing in order to defend Raqqa from expected assault from U.S. backed forces — a situation that could lead to an easy fight for the city.
The Islamic State is under intense military pressure and is now fighting on multiple fronts, stretching from Mosul to Al Bab. The group has an incentive to draw hostile forces into urban areas, where it can put up considerable resistance with fewer forces. This tactic would allow for the group to reallocate finite resources to Raqqa, while still bloodying advancing forces. In the event that the group loses control in Raqqa, it can then retreat to the Euphrates River valley and the desert areas between Iraq and Syria, from where it can direct an insurgency.
This strategy poses longer-term challenges for the hold forces and, importantly, allows for ISIL to keep in place a skeletal bureaucratic organization. The group relied on these tactics in Iraq before its move to Syria in 2011. With the establishment of the caliphate in 2013, it resorted to mafia like tactics to extract rent from poorly governed cities. In Iraq, the group managed to skim money off reconstruction contracts and charging rent in contested cities where the group had been cleared, but “sleeper cells” were still present. This history poses longer term implications for Turkish “hold” forces, perhaps requiring Ankara to stay in areas cleared to help prop up the small number, and fragmented, forces that it has arrayed to take territory in Syria.
Turkey, Raqqa, and the Kurdish Conundrum
The Turkish and allied taking and subsequent control over Al Bab would prevent the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the PYD, from further advance from its western canton of Afrin, just south of Marea and west from Manbij, a front the SDF now shares in places with the forces of Euphrates Shield. The PYD’s militia, the YPG, has emerged as the closest U.S. partner in the war against ISIL. In August, the United States and an umbrella group, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) primarily made up of the YPG took control of the city from the Islamic State. This offensive is likely to be the model for the current plan to capture Raqqa. As was the case with Manbij, the unfolding operation appears designed to encircle the city using Kurdish forces, before an Arab majority “hold” force takes control of terrain the YPG clears. The Arab forces are certain to be culled from local or tribal elements in the rural and desert areas surrounding the city.
The Turkish government has, at least publicly, expressed displeasure with the current U.S. approach. Ankara had previously asked the United States to delay the offensive for four months, a plan that would presumably rest on the creation of an alternative force to the YPG to take the city. The operations north of city are relatively straightforward and require little manpower, but any assault on the city itself will require that the YPG move fighters from various front lines along the Turkish border and near the Euphrates.
To slow the Raqqa offensive, the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to attack SDF positions, particularly in Manbij and along the border. Turkey has threatened to use forces fighting alongside its troops near Al Bab to attack SDF positions on the northern and western edges of Manbij. Ankara is also reportedly training a rival force to the SDF that is culled from elements previously affiliated with Syrian Revolutionary Front. This group is part of the vetted Syrian opposition but is hostile to the YPG. Along with well-placed leaks, such a group could be used to spearhead a Turkish backed operation for Tel Abyad, an SDF-held town on the Turkish border. Alternatively, this group could end up as nothing more than a weak vanity project for exiled military commanders.
Regardless, the combination of these two factors means that YPG is now hesitant to send reinforcements to support the Raqqa operation that would leave its flanks vulnerable to a Turkish-backed offensive. Turkey’s position means that it need not actually intervene in Manbij or Tel Abyad, but instead it can use the threat of force to slow a U.S. backed offensive. Ankara could also use Arab elements based in Turkey and part of exile governing structures from cities and towns the SDF now controls to sow internal dissent — a policy that would weaken SDF control over territory over the long term.
The Trump administration will inherit these problems, regardless of the policy it ultimately chooses to pursue in Syria. His key surrogates suggest he will focus on immediately the ISIL issue, although his comments on strategy suggest that he may only favor the expanded use of airpower. This approach will, if actually pursued, rely on the same small footprint approach that mixes special operations forces with precision air power. The SDF will still be the most likely be a preferred partner for the United States. Ankara knows this and is therefore acting to change facts on the ground now. These policies are, without question, detrimental to the narrow American strategic aim of defeating ISIL and taking Raqqa in the near term, but are perceived in Ankara as vital to Turkey’s longer-term national interests.
Turkey is therefore working hard to present Trump with a fait accompli in Syria. To date, significant diplomatic engagement from multiple U.S. government agencies has managed to prevent the serious outbreak of a Turkish-Kurdish escalation in Syria. The incoming president will have to take this problem seriously, both to ensure that the Syrian challenge doesn’t grow more complex and, most importantly, to protect American troops embedded with the SDF. However, the United States must also prepare for the worst and have options to manage, or at least address, the challenges any such escalation would pose for American interests in Syria.
The AKP’s cheerleading for America’s next president, therefore, should not be interpreted as a signal of changing Turkish priories. To the contrary, Ankara is hardening its positions and acting independently to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Washington. Turkey’s actions in Syria clearly suggest that its leaders plan on sharing as little as possible with the United States. Trump’s incoming administration will have to manage these problem, and should be cognizant of the fact that the actors involved are not likely to simply cut a deal that they see as disadvantageous to their interests in Syria.
Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.