Just yesterday I wrote about the quagmire that Donald Trump is inheriting when it comes to US relations with Turkey, the war on terror and the erosion of democracy in this once solid ally of the United States. That story grew even more complex this week with new moves on the military front announced by the White House. It seems that the delicate balancing act between engaging with Turkey in the fight against ISIS in Syria and our support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), also currently operating in that country, is growing even more wobbly.
The latest addition to this rather toxic stew of diplomacy is the announcement that we are flying more missions to support the Turks in the fighting around the town of al-Bab, Syria. (Washington Post)
U.S. aircraft have begun regular aerial intelligence surveillance in support of Turkey’s offensive against the Islamic State in northwestern Syria, in anticipation of increased U.S. support for the flailing Turkish military operation around the town of al-Bab.
The increased support comes after weeks of U.S. military and diplomatic talks with Turkish counterparts, and Russian airstrikes backing the Turkish offensive.
U.S. support to ground troops, including airstrikes and equipment in addition to surveillance, would be similar to what the United States now provides to Syrian groups battling the militants, potentially including assistance from Special Operations advisers whose participation in the offensive has thus far been limited to an area inside the Syrian border about 10 miles north of al-Bab, according to administration and defense officials.
Sources from our own military are expressing concerns over how complicated this has become. Our military flights are supposed to be only for purposes of gathering intelligence, targeting information and general support roles, while the Turks and the Russians are doing the actual bombing. But any time you’ve got that many fighters flying in close proximity in such a volatile region the possibilities for “misunderstanding” increase exponentially. Toss in the chance of potentially losing a plane and some American pilots and it’s enough to give the Commander in Chief indigestion rather quickly.
The reason that Obama is seriously complicating the situation for Trump is that we have two potentially conflicting initiatives going on at the same time. While we’re launching these flights in cooperation with Erdogan and Putin, the White House is also upping the ante in terms of directly shipping military hardware and arms to the Kurds fighting near al-Bab. Take a look at the map of the region and you can see the dicey nature of the situation. The town of al-Bab is located to the northeast of Aleppo and is only a few miles south of the Turkish border. The YPG is fighting a difficult battle against ISIS in the region and up until now we’ve been arming them “indirectly” by channeling resources through Iraq. By arming them directly we’re just going to inflame the situation with Erdogan because he and his Foreign Minister are both on record stating that the Kurds in the YPG are directly tied to the PKK Kurds, described in Turkey as a terrorist group.
As I wrote yesterday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, is making claims that they are expecting improved relations with Trump once he’s in office. That includes expectations that we’ll be extraditing cleric Fethullah Gulen back to them. Cavusoglu has made numerous trips to Moscow in recent months and has described Russia as Turkey’s “most important ally” in the war on terror. Add all of this up and you can see how quickly the situation could fall completely apart unless it’s handled properly.
All I can say is good luck to the President Elect with this mess. It’s going to be an early test of his abilities on foreign policy and perhaps one of his greatest challenges during his first year in office.